The Effect of a No Contest (Nolo Contendere) Plea on Civil Liability for Death, Personal Injury & Property Damage
There are many situations where lawyer must advise a client on the ramifications of civil an plea criminal proceedings where there is a danger that evidence from either proceeding could become admissible in either case. While most lawyers maintain a focus on one specific area, whether it be criminal or civil, he/she must nevertheless provide the client with sound advice and counsel.
Criminal Defense Lawyers Advising Clients on Civil Matters
Clients, whether lawyers like it or not, expect us to have knowledge in multiple areas of the law regardless of what the client initially expected when he/she retained our services. For a lawyer who focuses his area on criminal defense clients will often ask that we provide counsel on civil liability when the alleged victim sustains property damage, injury, or even death. Advice in this area is especially important when we advise the client to enter a plea and accept responsibility for some type of wrongful act.
What is the benefit of a plea?
While negotiated and open guilty pleas require a defendant (accused) to admit to certain facts, a plea of no contest or no contendere is much different. Procedurally all pleas have the same effect on a case in that it resolves the matter prior to Trial. In most situations, a client will receive a benefit toward a potential sentence given that he/she does not only save the victim, and/or a family further harm or suffering with a Trial, but also save the Commonwealth time and resources which can be devoted to other matters.
No Contest vs. Negotiated or Open Guilty Plea
While any plea option will result in a non-Trial disposition, a no contest plea provides a client with additional protections which could dramatically affect a related civil matter. Pennsylvania Courts have addressed this specific issue and found that while the effect of a no contest, negotiated, or open plea are the same, a no contest plea is not an admission of guilt. Unlike a guilty plea, a no contest (nolo contendere) plea does not involve any acknowledgment as to having committed an illegal act but rather simply admits that the allegations, if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, meet the elements of the offense or offenses charged. Therefore between a no contest plea and a plea of guilt is that a plea of guilt is a binding confession of the Defendant and the no contest plea has no effect beyond those criminal proceedings. Evidence of a no contest plea is not admissible against the Defendant in a civil matter.
It is important to keep in mind that even if a no contest plea is mentioned during the course of civil proceedings it does not provide grounds for an appeal, provided that the Court clearly states that the conviction was not evidence by which it found admission or which it arrived at a finding of negligence.
Civil Reservations in New Jersey
For those lawyers who maintain practices within the Commonwealth and New Jersey, they should understand that a no contest plea in Pennsylvania is the equivalent of a civil reservation plea in the State of New Jersey for the purposes of determining the effect of a plea on civil proceedings.
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