What are the consequences of pleading "no contest" to a charge of domestic violence?

A nolo contendere or “no contest” plea in a domestic violence case may have unanticipated legal consequences.

A  nolo contendere  or “no contest” plea is a plea entered by a defendant to a criminal charge. By pleading  nolo contendere  or no contest, the defendant does not admit the criminal charge but chooses not to contest it.

Defendants often prefer to enter a plea of no contest because in most states such a plea doesn’t constitute an admission of wrongdoing for the purpose of civil litigation. In other words, a defendant’s no contest plea to domestic violence won’t be introduced as an admission to having committed domestic violence in a civil lawsuit brought by the victim.

A no contest plea is generally considered a criminal conviction, and the same penalties that apply to a guilty plea apply to a no contest plea.

Federal Consequences

In federal court, a defendant may enter a  nolo contendere  plea only if the judge agrees to allow it instead of a guilty plea. A plea of  nolo contendere  is considered a conviction just like a guilty plea. (Fed. R. Evid. 11.)

Firearms and ammunition

Federal law makes the possession of a firearm or ammunition illegal for a person who has been convicted of either a misdemeanor or felony domestic violence offense. (Under federal law, it’s a crime for a person convicted of any crime punishable by more than a year in prison to possess a firearm or ammunition.) Federal law also prohibits people from selling or otherwise providing a firearm or ammunition to a person whom the seller knows or has reasonable to believe has been convicted of a domestic violence crime.

For a person who pleaded guilty or no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence crime, the following events will restore eligibility to legally possess a firearm and ammunition:

  • The no contest plea is expunged from the offender’s record.
  • A court sets aside the conviction.
  • The offender is pardoned for the offense.
  • The person’s civil rights have been restored after originally pleading no contest in a jurisdiction where the conviction resulted in the loss of civil rights.

Note, however, that the offender may still be barred from possessing a firearm and ammunition if the pardon, expungement, or restoration of rights expressly states that the firearm prohibition remains in effect. (18 U.S.C. § § 921, 922.)

Immigration

Under federal immigration law, a noncitizen in the United States becomes deportable upon being convicted of a domestic violence offense. Because federal law treats a plea of  nolo contendere  the same as a plea of guilty, pleading  nolo contendere  to a domestic violence crime will not prevent potential deportation. (8 U.S.C. § 1227.)

State Consequences

Child Custody.  In addition to the consequences above, pleading  nolo contendere  or no contest to a domestic violence offense can have consequences in child custody determinations in state court. In California, for example, joint physical or legal custody is presumed to be detrimental to the child if the court finds that a parent committed domestic violence against the other parent, the child, or a sibling of the child within the past five years. It is not necessary that the parent have been criminally charged or convicted of domestic violence; however, in the event that the parent is criminally charged with domestic violence, a plea of no contest will lead to the presumption that joint custody is inappropriate. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3044.)

Professional Licensing.  Pleading no contest to a domestic violence crime will have the same effect as pleading guilty in the context of professional licensing. In Colorado, for example, a plea of either guilty or  nolo contendere  to a crime of domestic violence can be used as grounds for denying, annulling, suspending, or revoking a teaching license. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-60.5-107.)

Employment.  In Florida, a pending charge or conviction for a domestic violence crime, including a  nolo contendereplea, prevents a person from obtaining a license as a healthcare provider. This prohibition isn‘t limited to the healthcare field: Any person convicted of domestic violence, including those who pleaded guilty or  nolo contendere, may be denied employment or fired if the position requires a background check. (Fla. St. § § 408.809, 435.04, 435.05.)

See our section on Domestic Violence Laws & Penalties for more information on the consequences of this charge.

Consult an Attorney

If you are charged with a domestic violence offense, you should speak with an attorney immediately. In addition to serious criminal penalties such as fines and incarceration, a conviction for a domestic violence offense can affect several areas of your life, including your employment and right to own firearms. Pleading  nolo contendere  or no contest to a domestic violence charge will not avoid these repercussions. An experienced attorney can provide you with invaluable guidance while protecting your rights. A qualified attorney is essential to successfully defending against domestic violence charges.

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