How to Plead in Virginia Criminal Law Cases


When facing a criminal charge, the first thing that a defendant is asked is how they plead to the charges.  This is typically done at the opening of the trial on the charges.  A defendant can plead not guilty, guilty, and nolo contendere, or no contest.  Each of these pleas mean something different and each can have an effect on the outcome and options for your case.

Not Guilty

A plea of not guilty means that you did not commit the crime alleged, and you wish to be tried on the charges.  After a person pleads not guilty, they are asked whether they want a judge or jury trial, and then the Commonwealth is required to prove that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  A plea of not guilty does not necessarily mean “innocent” but only that there is not enough evidence to convict.  A plea of not guilty maintains your right to appeal for most purposes.


A plea of guilty means that you admit that you committed the crime as charged.  When someone pleads guilty, they give up the right to confront and cross examine the witnesses, the right to self-incrimination, and the right to present a defense.  A person who pleads guilty is often asked if they are pleading guilty because they are in fact guilty of the crime.  Guilty pleas often benefit defendants that are facing overwhelming evidence of guilty.  When you plead guilty, you give up the right to appeal a case, except for in very limited circumstances.

Alford Plea of Guilty

If a person is facing a serious charge, and does not want to admit their guilt, but wants to take advantage of a favorable offer by the Commonwealth, they can enter an Alford plea.  An Alford plea essentially acts as a guilty plea, but does not require the defendant to actually admit that they committed the crime.  The Alford plea requires the court to hear a statement of the evidence and find that it is substantial against the defendant.

No Contest

A no contest plea is a less formal version of the Alford guilty plea.  A no contest plea means that you are not contesting the evidence against you and that it is sufficient to convict you, but you are not admitting that you committed the crime.  A no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea, including limiting your right to appeal.

If you are facing a charge and are unsure how to plea, please contact the criminal lawyers at Winslow and McCurry, PLLC.