Pleading in a Criminal Case: What Happens at Court?
Plea of Guilty (or Guilty with an Explanation)If you plead guilty to an offense, the judge will find you guilty. By pleading guilty you are stating to the court you do not dispute the evidence, the charge is appropriate and that you should be convicted of the crime.
If you plead guilty with an explanation, the judge will still find you guilty, however with both pleas the judge can ask you if there is anything you would like to say. It at this point you are simply arguing mitigating factors and sentencing. You will still be found guilty and the only question at this point is what sentence should be imposed such as fines, jail time, license suspension, etc. depending on the type of crime.
On a plea of guilty the judge is accepting the state's evidence and you are not disputing any of its evidence, and stating it is true and accurate. If you in any way believe you should not be found guilty or there are circumstances that should be taken into account making your case different, then you should not plead guilty.
Plea of Nolo Contendre (or Plea of No Contest)This plea is similar to a plea of guilty in that the judge will likely find you guilty. It is a statement saying you are not disputing the facts or evidence the state presents. In other words you are not "contesting" them, however if the police officer and the state have any evidence of the offense you have committed, you will likely be found guilty all the same.
Additionally, you can make a statement explaining the circumstances of the offense, your previous record in relation to the charge, or anything you have done between getting the charge and your court date which would mitigate sentencing. However, at this stage you are still not contesting the state's evidence, and simply arguing for sentencing.
Plea of Not GuiltyBy pleading not guilty, the state is required to present all of its evidence and prove each element of the charged offense. You are allowed to cross examine the state's witnesses (i.e. victims, police officers, experts, etc.). Finally, you are allowed (but not required) to present your own evidence. If there are circumstances you wish the judge to factor in to your offense you may present them, and you may call your own witnesses to testify.
Under these circumstances you are not conceding the conviction, but requiring the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. You are not required to put on any evidence and have the right to remain silent.
Additionally, you have the right to put on mitigating evidence which can also go towards sentencing if the judge wishes to find you guilty such as your record, any community service you have done, and anything you believe the judge should take into account.