Most California DUI cases end in a plea deal. This means that the defendant is willing to accept the prosecution’s offered sentence in exchange for a guilty or no contest plea. Few people, however, actually know the difference between pleading guilty or no contest.
Pleading guilty to a California DUI means that you are admitting that you drove while intoxicated, drove with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or more, or that you did both. A guilty plea can be used against that person in a separate and subsequent civil case arising from the drunk driving.
For example, if a drunk driver crashes a vehicle into a house, the homeowner may file a lawsuit the drunk driver to recover losses associated with the crash. Since a guilty plea means that the drunk driver admitted to driving drunk, the homeowner can use the guilty plea against the drunk driver to win the civil lawsuit.
A plea of no contest, or nolo contendere, on the other hand, means that the defendant is not admitting guilt, but rather merely accepting any punishment the judge may give them as though they had pled guilty. Because the defendant is not admitting guilt, the no contest plea cannot be used against them in a subsequent civil case.
In our drunk driver hypothetical, if the homeowner were to sue the drunk driver for damages associated with an accident, the homeowner would not be able to use the drunk driver’s no contest plea to help win the civil lawsuit because the drunk driver never admitted guilt.
Whether a defendant is allowed to enter a no contest plea is dependent upon the plea negotiations. If there are no aggravating factors associated with the DUI, i.e. high BAC, prior DUI convictions, etc., the defendant may be allowed to enter a no contest plea. It is however, by no means, automatic.
As a practical matter, there is almost no difference between the two pleas as it pertains to the DUI case. The judge treats each equally. However, when possible, many DUI defendants and DUI attorneys seek a no contest plea over a guilty plea. Even if it is unlikely that a subsequent civil case will arise from the drunk driving incident, a no contest plea just looks better.