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What Is a DUI “Nolo Contendere” Plea?

What Is a DUI “Nolo Contendere” Plea?

By: William C. Head, Atlanta DUI Attorney

Nolo contendere has historic roots in several states as being a more favorable plea resolution than walking into court and admitting guilt. Basically, a person who pleads “nolo contendere” or “nolo” to a criminal charge is not contesting being convicted, but (for other reasons) does not want to “allocate” in a courtroom that he or she is “guilty” of the charge.

For many traffic offenses, a nolo contendere plea can eliminate points, so long as the nolo plea is accepted by the Judge, and it is a 1st offense within 5 years. Georgia DUI laws count a nolo contendere plea as an offense, just as if a guilty plea was put on your history. If you were also facing a driving while suspended offense, the nolo will be of great benefit to you, if a first offense.

Prior to 1997 in Georgia, courts all over the State gleefully accepted a nolo contendere plea to DUI in virtually any DUI case. For a first offense DUI, such a nolo plea permitted the Georgia license holder to keep his or her full driving privileges. The GA legislature ended that loophole in 1997, and now nolo contendere in a DUI case in Georgia is rare.

Is nolo contendere a conviction?

All states consider a “nolo contendere” plea to DUI to be the functional equivalent of a guilty plea, but some other benefits for a plea to nolo contendere may exist. For example, in a DUI accident case, entering a nolo contendere plea to DUI prevents a civil litigant (who claims injury or property loss) from simply introducing a certified copy of the “guilty” plea of a DUI case. The personal injury attorney can’t enter a “nolo contendere” plea, without proof of the underlying proof of driving under the influence.

For some people with professional licenses, a nolo contendere or “no contest” plea used to be of some value. Recent changes to State Bar admissions to practice law and medical doctor licensing in Georgia have eliminated any previous benefit to medical practitioners, by claiming that the nolo plea deal did not admit guilt.

Is a nolo contendere Georgia plea helpful on a DUI case?

Until a decade or so ago, entering a nolo contendere plea in GA for a North Carolina licensee permitted the driver from NC to be able to avoid an immediate license suspension. North Carolina closed that loophole, and now considers either a DUI nolo plea or a guilty plea to impact the NC licensee’s driving privileges the same way.

This change in NC DUI laws, and the 1997 change in GA DUI laws, are both part of relentless pressure from the federal government to suspend or revoke licenses for all DUI-DWI offenders. The gambit played by a DUI lawyer in Georgia, for an accused North Carolina licensee in prior years, is an example of compliance with federal mandates to more harshly punish repeat DUI.

Is a nolo contendere plea available to all Georgia DUI arrestees?

Other than the major change in 1997, the Georgia legislature has further restricted access of a nolo contendere plea for any DUI offense. These limitations and barriers have virtually rendered the plea of nolo contendere to be nothing more than a historic footnote, beyond the limited use for some motorists who are facing civil liability for a DUI accident.

  • Georgia DUI law blocks drivers under the age of 21 from using a nolo contendere plea on a driving while intoxicated case, even if the trial judge was willing to accept it.
  • DUI GA drivers with high BAC levels (above a 0.15 reading as defined in OCGA 40-6-391 (a) (5)), cannot utilize a nolo contendere plea for DUI.
  • If a nolo contendere disposition has been used by the driver in the past 5 years (from date of arrest to date of arrest), nolo is not allowed in the current case.
  • The DUI attorney of a person seeking a plea of nolo contendere must prepare and present to the Judge a verified petition showing how the nolo disposition prevents a hardship for the DUI driver.

Why is a plea of nolo contendere of any value in GA?

After the many legislative restrictions and changes to Georgia DUI laws, few possible factual situations may find value in obtaining a nolo contendere disposition. These are:

  • Related civil litigation from a motor vehicle crash, where the at-fault driver seeks to plead to nolo contendere.
  • The accused drunk driver works in some business or industry for which the regulatory rules or employment manual permit a nolo plea to salvage the accused person’s job, or ability to continue in that trade or business (e.g. cosmetologist).
  • The person facing driving under the influence may be on a deferred adjudication program from another state that may require loss of favorable deferral treatment with any “guilty plea” to a serious misdemeanor or felony.

If I have an out-of-state license, will a nolo contendere GA disposition benefit me?

The earlier historic reference to federal regulations calling for all states to eliminate “special” dispositions like nolo contendere from its state statutes, or risk losing federal highway funds, has all but wiped out these old laws. As the push by M.A.D.D. and NHTSA (an agency within the Department of Transportation) for safer highways moved forward, the “nolo” plea was an easy target for theses highway safety advocates.

Subsequent legislation can neutralize any value or benefit of a plea of nolo contendere to DUI which was entered before the more restrictive new statute was enacted. In Harrison v. Commissioner, Div. of Motor Vehicles, 226 W. Va. 23 (2010), the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned two lower court rulings that blocked the WV DMV from treating a prior nolo contendere plea as a first offense DUI. The two lower court judges believed that the new law only applied prospectively, and could not retroactively eliminate the benefit the two men who were facing the same DUI second offense penalties. The nolo contendere plea for each man was counted as a 1st DUI offense, which caused much harsher driver’s license revocation and criminal penalties.

Can my Georgia DUI lawyer always obtain a nolo contendere disposition, for eligible DUI drivers?

The most recent changes to state laws about a drunk driving or drugged driving offense gave the presiding judge discretion, as to whether or not ANY person can obtain a plea of nolo contendere to DUI. Some judges have never approved one. Other judges are highly reluctant to allow the nolo plea. A few are quick to allow it, so long as the specter of a civil judgement justifies using the one-time nolo contendere, and the accused citizen is “eligible.”

This national shift toward blocking the use of a nolo contendere plea in all DUI cases has created massive changes in the State of Georgia. Cases in 1997 and earlier OFTEN were pled out to DUI, since a first DUI offense was a slap on the hand, and the driver was permitted to keep full driving privileges. Trials for DUI first offenders were rare in those days. Today, most of our DUI law firm’s trials are for 1st offense DUI clients.

Additionally, because jury trials are guaranteed in Georgia for all felony and misdemeanor crimes, the size and number of courts and judges that handle DUI cases has more than tripled since 1997. This has placed a far higher financial burden upon state and local governments, and these costs are passed on to taxpayers and those who are convicted in Georgia.

For a free analysis of your eligibility to plead nolo to a DUI, please complete our online case evaluation form, or call William C. Head, PC at (404) 567-5515.

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