There are six (6) pleas available to a criminal defendant in California. California Penal Code 1016. The pleas of "not guilty"," "guilty"," and "nolo contendere" are the three (3) commonly encountered. The usual practice is for the criminal defendant to plead "not guilty" and then either negotiate terms of a different plea, or proceed to judgment.

There are six kinds of pleas to an indictment or an information, or to a complaint charging an offense triable in any inferior court:

  1. Guilty.
  2. Not guilty.
  3. Nolo contendere (No Contest), subject to the approval of the court. The court shall ascertain whether the defendant completely understands that a plea of nolo contendere shall be considered the same as a plea of guilty and that, upon a plea of nolo contendere, the court shall find the defendant guilty. The legal effect of such a plea, to a crime punishable as a felony, shall be the same as that of a plea of guilty for all purposes. In cases other than those punishable as felonies, the plea and any admissions required by the court during any inquiry it makes as to the voluntariness of, and factual basis for, the plea may not be used against the defendant as an admission in any civil suit based upon or growing out of the act upon which the criminal prosecution is based.
  4. A former judgment of conviction or acquittal of the offense charged.
  5. Once in jeopardy.
  6. Not guilty by reason of insanity...Penal Code Section 1016
The change of a plea requires leave of Court. People v. Lewis (1883) 64 C 401, 1 P 490.

A plea of nolo contendere may be made only with Court approval. California Penal Code 1016, Caminetti v. Imperial Life (1943) 59 CA2d 476, 139 P2d 681.

The language of the section pertaining to nolo contendere pleas indicates a prohibition of its application to all crimes "punishable as felonies." This language is broader than the California Penal Code Section 17 definition of felonies, since under Section 17 the ultimate sentence or other factors determine whether the conviction is a felony or misdemeanor. The language of the section indicates that a nolo contendere plea has the same as a guilty plea effect in cases of "wobblers, even those which result in misdemeanor convictions, since they are punishable as felonies. See Comment to California Evidence Code 1300.

The change in language barring application of nolo contendere pleas to crimes punishable as felonies was made in 1982 under the mandate of the California Victims Bill of Rights.

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