Rejecting a No Contest plea may be an abuse of a judge’s discretion, according to a case decided last week by the Ohio Supreme Court. A plea of No Contest is different than a guilty plea, and the plea of No Contest is used for two purposes in DUI (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio) cases. Although a judge’s approval is required for a plea of No Contest, the case decided last week makes it clear a judge’s refusal to give approval may be overturned.
No Contest Plea Rejected
The case decided last week is State v. Hill. Hill was indicted for charges related to drugs and guns. Hill filed two motions to suppress evidence, and the judge overruled the motions. Hill then attempted to plead No Contest so he could appeal the judge’s rulings on the motions to suppress. The judge refused to accept the No Contest plea, so Hill pled guilty.
Hill then appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, arguing the judge should have accepted the No Contest Plea. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision, so Hill appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held the judge abused their discretion by refusing to accept the No Contest Plea.
What Is a No Contest Plea?
According to Rule 11 of the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure, there are four pleas which may be entered by a defendant: (1) Guilty; (2) Not Guilty; (3) Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity; and (4) No Contest.
A No Contest plea is different than a Guilty plea. According to Rule 11, a plea of Guilty is “a complete admission of the defendant’s guilt”. A No Contest plea is “not an admission of guilt, but is an admission of the truth of the facts alleged in the indictment, information, or complaint”. Unlike a Guilty Plea, a plea of No Contest may only be entered “with the consent of the court”.
Why Would a Defendant Plead No Contest in an OVI case?
First, a defendant in an OVI case may choose to plead No Contest when there is possible civil liability resulting from the OVI. Suppose a defendant crashes into another car, is suspected of being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and is charged with OVI. If the defendant pleads guilty to OVI, that guilty plea could be used in a lawsuit filed by the driver of the other car. On the other hand, if the defendant pleads No Contest, Rule 11 states the plea of No Contest, “shall not be used against the defendant in any subsequent civil or criminal proceeding”.
Second, a defendant in an OVI case may choose to plead No Contest to preserve the ability to appeal a judge’s ruling. If a defendant pleads guilty, the defendant waives the right to appeal the judge’s ruling. However, if a defendant pleads No Contest, Rule 12 of the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure states, “The plea of no contest does not preclude a defendant from asserting upon appeal that the trial court prejudicially erred in ruling on a pretrial motion, including a pretrial motion to suppress evidence”.
Why Was it an Abuse of Discretion to Reject the No Contest Plea?
In the Hill case, the defendant wanted to plead No Contest so he could appeal the judge’s rulings on the motions to suppress evidence. The judge refused to accept the No Contest plea because the judge believed there were no legitimate issues for appeal. By rejecting the No Contest plea for this reason, the judge put themself in the position of the Court of Appeals. The role of the appellate court is to review the propriety of the judge’s rulings, and the judge usurped the role of the appellate court. By doing so, the judge abused its discretion. Accordingly, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for Hill to enter a No Contest plea.
Court Consent for No Contest Pleas
In Ohio OVI cases, defendants sometimes plead No Contest when the defendant intends to appeal a judge’s ruling. A judge should not be able to reject a No Contest plea because the judge is sure he or she made the correct ruling. That is exactly the purpose of appellate courts: to review the judge’s ruling and determine whether it was correct. The Rules of Criminal Procedure should be revised so a judge’s consent is not required for a defendant to plead No Contest. Until the Rules are so revised, the Hill decision should prevent judges from rejecting No Contest pleas when the defendant intends to appeal.