What’s the Difference Between an Alford Plea and a No-Contest Plea?

An Alford plea is where a person who is innocent, or who insists that they are innocent, pleads guilty anyway. Why would someone do that?

I often see commentary about how many innocent people plead guilty – I know that’s hard to believe for many who are not involved in the criminal courts, just like it’s hard to believe that innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit.

But it happens every day in criminal courts across America – there is even a US Supreme Court case, NC v. Alford, that sanctions the practice. Sometimes it’s an Alford plea, sometimes it’s a no-contest plea, and sometimes people just lie and say “I’m guilty” to avoid the potential consequences of a conviction at trial.

What is an Alford plea, how is that different than a no-contest plea, and why would someone plead guilty to a crime they insist they did not commit?

What is an Alford Plea?

An Alford plea is when a court accepts a defendant’s guilty plea and imposes their sentence without an admission of guilt.

Most courts will accept an Alford plea when:

  • The defendant refuses to admit guilt (possibly because they are not guilty),
  • There is evidence or witness testimony that would likely prove their guilt at trial, and
  • There is some benefit to the guilty plea – for example, a defendant charged with trafficking heroin who could be sentenced to 40 years after trial is offered a probationary sentence if they plead guilty to a lesser offense.

The tragedy of an Alford plea is that, while it allows many who would have been convicted at trial to avoid the harsher penalties they may have gotten after a conviction at trial, it also allows prosecutors to force guilty pleas from innocent defendants by effectively holding a gun to their heads –

Plead guilty or get life in prison… or even, as in the case NC v. Alford, plead guilty or die.

NC v. Alford: An Innocent Person’s Right to Plead Guilty

It may be the defendant is truly innocent, but the evidence points to their guilt and they know that they will be convicted by a jury when the jurors hear the case against them. It could be the person is guilty of the crime, and the evidence will prove their guilt, but the defendant refuses to admit guilt for whatever reason.

In other cases, an Alford plea happens when someone commits a crime, but they don’t remember what happened because they blacked out due to intoxication or trauma. If you have no memory of the events, you can’t truthfully say, “I did it, I’m guilty.” But, if the evidence tends to prove that you did it although you have no memory one way or the other, it might make sense to plead guilty if there is a benefit from the plea offer.

Plead Guilty or We Will Kill You

In NC v. Alford, the defendant was charged with capital murder – if he went to trial and lost, the state intended to kill him.

There was enough evidence against him that both he and his attorney believed he would be convicted if he went to trial – even the witnesses Alford thought would testify for him ended up saying he was guilty.

The state offered to allow him to plead guilty to second-degree murder with a sentence of up to 30 years instead of the death penalty, and Alford insisted 1) that he would accept the offer and plead guilty and 2) that he was not guilty.

After hearing testimony from police officers involved in his case, the court accepted his guilty plea and sentenced him to 30 years. He later asked for post-conviction relief because he entered the guilty plea under threat of death, but the US Supreme Court disagreed – it is not unconstitutional for a prosecutor to secure a guilty plea by threatening to kill a defendant unless the defendant pleads guilty.

To reach this result, the Court necessarily had to also approve the practice of innocent people pleading guilty to avoid the consequences of a trial – otherwise, they would have had to overturn the conviction, send the case back for trial, and allow Alford to face the death penalty again…

What is a No-Contest Plea?

A “no-contest plea,” also called “nolo contendere,” is authorized in SC Code Section 17-23-40, although it only applies to misdemeanor offenses in SC:

The defendant in any misdemeanor case in any of the courts of this State may, with the consent of the court, enter a plea of “nolo contendere” thereto and upon so doing such defendant shall be dealt with in like manner as if he had entered a plea of guilty thereto.

Some judges may accept a no-contest plea to a felony offense, but it is generally accepted that, per the above statute, no-contest pleas are limited to misdemeanor offenses in SC.

Is a No-Contest Plea Different than an Alford Plea?

As a practical matter, a no-contest plea has the same effect as an Alford plea in SC. In both cases, the defendant enters a plea of guilty while maintaining their innocence, because the evidence is likely to prove their guilt and they will receive some benefit from the plea bargain.

In both cases, the court must agree to accept the Alford plea or no-contest plea. If the court does not feel that it is appropriate, whether because the judge does not like Alford pleas or because the judge is convinced of the defendant’s innocence, then the parties must stand down, find another judge, enter a plea with an admission of guilt, or take the case to trial.

In both cases, the effect of the Alford plea or no-contest plea is the same as if the defendant had pled guilty with an admission of guilt – the defendant now has a criminal conviction on their record and they might also face collateral consequences like the loss of their driver’s license, their right to own a firearm, or deportation.

Should You Enter an Alford Plea?

My advice: If you are innocent do not plead guilty. It’s scary, it may be high stakes, but this is why we have the right to a trial by jury.

Also my advice: You make the decision as to whether you plead guilty or not, and it is never your attorney’s call. Listen to your attorney’s advice, but Alford pleas are sometimes necessary to avoid the greater tragedy of wrongful incarceration (or even death in a capital case).

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to schedule a free consultation.