The Latin phrase Nolo Contendere means “I will not contest it.” The idea behind a plea of Nolo Contendere is that the criminal defendant will accept in the criminal court the charges as presented and subject themselves to the appropriate punishment as determined by the court. However, it is also supposed to only have that effect in the criminal court. The Nolo Contendere plea is not supposed to have any impact or relevance outside of the criminal court, particularly in civil actions.
The Pennsylvania courts have determined that the professional licensing boards are “watchdogs” of the professions and therefore are empowered to maintain the high standards, which the people of this Commonwealth have a right to expect from their professionals, and therefore, the courts have held that the Boards have the ability to admit a certified copy of the docket entry of a plea of Nolo Contendere at an administrative hearing, and that a Nolo Contendere plea is evidence of an admission of guilt of a crime.
It should be noted that there are lots of reasons why an individual might plead Nolo Contendere in the criminal setting, including the high cost to defend the criminal case, the emotional toll of a criminal trial, and the risk of a guilty verdict and the attendant jail time that would ensue being some of the most common.
While the courts have held that the Nolo Contendere plea is admissible in the administrative hearing, they have also held essentially that this Nolo Contendere plea is simply a presumption of guilt and leaves the door open for the professional to submit evidence that they are not guilty. Obviously, having a rebuttable presumption is better than facing the licensing board with a guilty plea or criminal conviction, but the burden of establishing innocence may be difficult indeed. Remember that your audience will ultimately be a licensing board and will initially be the prosecutor and possibly hearing officer, all of whom are likely to have never faced criminal charges and who might find it difficult to believe that a person would plead Nolo Contendere or, in their minds, essentially a guilty plea, if they were not guilty. The reality of the situation will be that it is most likely that even an innocent person who pleads no contest, will have some disciplinary action taken upon their license.
It is important for any professional faced with a criminal charge to consider the effect of a Nolo Contendere plea. Obviously, the primary focus when facing criminal charges is going to be to maintain one’s freedom and avoid jail time. However, as a professional, you must keep in mind the effect the criminal charges will have on your ability to practice your chosen profession. Also, please keep in mind that most criminal defence attorneys will not understand the implications of a Nolo Contendere plea upon a professional license. The reality is that most criminal defense attorneys do not handle professional licensing matters.
Ultimately, my advice is to weigh all your options and understand the potential implications of a Nolo Contendere plea before you enter it. It may very well be the right decision to make, but understand the impact it could have upon your professional license.
[i]For example, see the Pennsylvania Accountancy Law, Section 9.1 (5), which states that a CPA can be disciplined for entering a plea of Nolo Contendere for a felony under any federal or state law or the laws of any foreign jurisdiction.