Explained: Guilty Plea, Nolo Plea, Alford Plea, Not Guilty Plea

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In our criminal justice system, prior to trial, an individual must be formally charged of committing an offense(s).  After a formal accusation, usually in the form of an indictment or an accusation, an accused is required to respond.  This formal response to a criminal charge is called a plea.[1]  Not all pleas are the same and their use depends upon the situation.  Some common pleas are not guilty, guilty, nolo contendere, and the Alford plea.

Not Guilty

A plea of not guilty is a denial of all charge(s) filed against the accused.  A plea of not guilty forces the prosecution to prove that the accused committed the alleged charge(s) as filed beyond a reasonable doubt.  Although an outward expression of “not guilty” is not required, in some states, like Georgia, standing mute is equivalent to entering a plea of not guilty.[2]


A plea of guilty tells the court that the accused admits to the charge(s) filed against him.  By entering a plea of guilty, an accused waives all rights associated with trial, including the right to be heard before a fair and impartial jury, to confront witnesses, among others.  Unlike a plea of not guilty, however, the judge must be convinced that the accused entered the guilty plea voluntarily and intelligent, prior to its acceptance. In some instances, a judge is permitted to sentence an accused immediately after accepting his or her guilty plea and it may not be withdrawn once entered.  In Georgia, an accused is permitted to withdraw a plea of guilty and enter a plea of not guilty, so long as it is done prior to the judgment being entered.[3]

Nolo Contendere

A plea of nolo contendere or no contest informs the court that the accused does not contest to the charges and will waive his or her right to trial, while maintaining a claim of innocence.  There are limitations, however, in entering a plea of nolo contendere. For example, in Georgia, a plea of nolo contendere can only be accepted in non- capital felonies.[4]  Different from a plea of guilty however, a plea of nolo contendere more than likely cannot be used against you in any subsequent proceedings.[5]  A nolo contendere plea, like a guilty plea is a conviction.


Alfordpleas came about in the landmark case of North Carolina v. Alford.  In Alford, the Supreme Court held that “an individual accused of [a] crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.”[6] To illustrate, the Alford plea is typically used in cases where the prosecution’s evidence against the accused is stronger than any evidence the accused may have to support a claim of innocence.  The Supreme Court further distinguished Alford’s situation from the typical situation found in a nolo contendere plea.[7]  The use of an Alford plea, similar to a nolo contendere plea is dependent upon state law and are limited to certain offenses.  In Georgia, Alfordpleas are not specifically prohibited or accepted by statute, however, Georgia courts have accepted Alfordpleas in murder and juvenile cases.  Similar to guilty and nolo contendere pleas, an Alford plea is a conviction.

Sometimes, the decision to plea and the type of plea to enter involves a process some attorneys refer to as plea bargaining.  In the United States, roughly around eighty (80%) percent of criminal cases are disposed of as a result of this negotiating process. In addition to negotiating a specific type of plea, plea bargains can also negotiate a specific sentence. Judges, however, still must consent the terms of a plea bargain prior to its acceptance.

A conviction can hold different consequences depending upon the defendant and the charge(s) brought against him or her.  Some consequences include the loss of Federal Financial Aid, ineligibility for government assistance, or deportation, to name a few. A plea, other than one of not guilty, as stated above, is for all purposes, a conviction.  Any defendant contemplating how to plea should be wary of the consequences that may stem from any plea an accused decides to take.  Another consequence of entering a plea other than one of not guilty is that the defendant also waives his right to appeal on the basis of his plea.  For these and all of the other aforementioned reasons, anyone charged with committing an offense should consult an experienced defense attorney to assist them in this decision.  A defendant’s plea can determine whether a trial will commence or not, therefore, special care should always be taken in making this decision.

[1]Black’s Law Dictionary, 1337 (Bryan A. Garner, ed., 2014, 2009).

[2]O.C.G.A. § 17-7-94

[3]O.C.G.A. § 17-7-93(b)

[4]O.C.G.A. § 17-7-95(a)

[5]Id.at subsection (c)

[6]North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. v. 25, 37 (1970).

[7]Alford, 400 U.S.at 27.

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