This letter is in response to an inquiry from your Department regarding the effect of a plea of nolo contendere to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. For the reasons outlined below, a plea of nolo contendere to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence does not result in the imposition of a civil disability so as to take away the right of an individual to possess a firearm under the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (the Act) provides that a person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” may not “ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.” 18 U.S.C. § 922. By the terms of the Act, the application of a nolo contendere plea to the Act is determined “in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction where the proceedings were held.” 18 U.S.C. § 921(20).
Georgia’s law regarding nolo contendere pleas is found at O.C.G.A. § 17-7-95. That Code Section provides in pertinent part:
Except as otherwise provided by law, a plea of nolo contendere shall not be used against the defendant in any other court or proceedings as an admission of guilt or otherwise or for any purpose; and the plea shall not be deemed a plea of guilty for the purpose of effecting any civil disqualification of the defendant to hold public office, to vote, to serve upon any jury, or any other civil disqualification imposed upon a person convicted of any offense under the laws of this state. The plea shall be deemed and held to put the defendant in jeopardy within the meaning of Article I, Section I, Paragraph XVIII of the Constitution of this state after sentence has been imposed.
Because the plea of nolo contendere “in Georgia [is] entirely of statutory origin,” Nelson v. State, 87 Ga. App. 644, 646 (1953), Smith v. State, 76 Ga. App. 847 (1948), the language of the statute itself is the primary source of its effect. There are also other Georgia statutes as well as Georgia cases which assist in defining the ultimate impact of pleading nolo contendere, since the leading caveat in the statute makes clear that the benefits of pleading nolo contendere are available “except as otherwise provided by law.” O.C.G.A. § 17-7-95 (c).
“Entering a plea of nolo contendere is a privilege rather than a right.” Fortson v. Hopper, 242 Ga. 81, 82 (1978). The plea is an assertion that the defendant does not desire to contest the truth of charges against him. Id. So it is “not a plea of not guilty, nor is it a plea of guilty. Rather it is approximately midway between the two extremes.” Id. It is a plea “designed to cover situations where the side effects of a plea of guilty, in addition to the penalties provided by law, would be too harsh.” Id. at 83 (quoting Wright v. State, 75 Ga. App. 764 (1947)).
A plea of nolo contendere “differs from a plea of guilty only in that it cannot be used against the defendant in any other court or proceedings as an admission of guilt or otherwise, or for any other purpose, and it is not a plea of guilty for the purpose of effecting civil disqualifications.” Winsor Forest v. Rocker, 121 Ga. App. 773 (1970) (citation omitted). The plea cannot be used in another case. Id. However, a sentence based on the plea of nolo contendere is a conviction, but does not constitute guilt in any case, even a civil case involving the same act. Id. at 773-74.
It has been held that a plea of nolo contendere can be used for impeachment by using it as evidence of a felony or crime of morale turpitude in a civil case, Tilley v. Page, 181 Ga. App. 98, 100 (1986), but not in a criminal case. State v. Rocco, 259 Ga. 463 (1989). In addition, however, a witness may be subject to impeachment by evidence of a nolo contendere plea even in a criminal case to disprove the testimony of a material fact. Id. at 467.
There are, however, statutory exceptions which specifically provide that a nolo contendere plea is considered as a conviction. These include, but are not limited to, O.C.G.A. § 40-5-63 (suspension of driver’s license can be based upon a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 43-11-47 (a)(4)(A) (dentist’s license may be revoked based upon a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 43-26-11 (1) (nurse’s license may be revoked based upon a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 43-40-15 (b)(1), (2) (real estate broker and salesperson license may be disciplined based upon a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 35-8-7.1 (3), (4) (peace officer may be disciplined based on a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 43-34-37 (a)(4) (physician may be disciplined based on a plea of nolo contendere); O.C.G.A. § 16-11-129 (b)(5)(B)(ii) (a plea of nolo contendere to certain offenses would disqualify a person from getting a license to carry a pistol or revolver). Of particular significance to your inquiry, is that the General Assembly provided in O.C.G.A. § 16-11-129 (b)(5)(B)(ii), that a plea of nolo contendere in drug related cases results in the inability to get a pistol license. This demonstrates that the General Assembly did not intend to effect a disqualification for other nolo contendere pleas not specified in the statute.
While there are many Attorney General opinions regarding pleas of nolo contendere, in Op. Att’y Gen. 1964, pp. 566-568, the Attorney General opined, in a case similar to the issue posed in your inquiry, that “a plea of nolo contendere may not be raised in another proceeding as a basis for any civil disqualification” and therefore “the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, is not legally prohibited from appointing [a professor] to a teaching position . . .” based upon a plea of nolo contendere to a constitutionally designated crime prohibiting those persons from holding “any office, or appointment of honor or trust in this State.”
In that opinion, the Attorney General relied on the policy discussion outlined by the court in Wright v. State, 75 Ga. App. 764 (1947), wherein the court ascertained that the intent of the General Assembly in establishing a nolo contendere plea was to remedy statutorily the harshness of a guilty plea in certain instances. The court there found that “[f]ollowing the lead of other jurisdictions, including our Federal system of jurisprudence, provision was made for a plea of guilty that in the discretion of the court could be employed by defendants thus guilty of crime, which would authorize the court to impose the punishment fixed by statute as to the offense charged, without also carrying with it the objectionable and infamous provisions of law as herein outlined. As in other jurisdictions, this plea was named nolo contendere.” Id. at 766-67. The opinion also relies upon Nelson v. State, 87 Ga. App. 644 (1953), where at that time a plea of nolo contendere meant that the Department of Public Safety was without the power and authority to revoke the defendant’s driver’s license based on a plea of nolo contendere.
It appears that the nolo contendere plea is designed to protect against the consequences of a civil disability being imposed except in the specific case in which the plea is entered. The exceptions are like those previously cited statutory instances where the nolo contendere plea is specifically included as a conviction.
No exception exists in Georgia law so as to make a nolo contendere plea to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence a “conviction” for purposes of imposing any automatic civil disability. Therefore, there is no basis provided by law to use such a plea of nolo contendere to effect any disability, including the right to possess firearms.
In conclusion, a plea of nolo contendere in a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence does not result in a civil disability so as to take away the right to possess a firearm under the Gun Control Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq.
CAROL A. CALLAWAY
Senior Assistant Attorney General
See 1991 Op. Att’y Gen. 91-10; 1990 Op. Att’y Gen. 90-16; 1983 Op. Att’y Gen. 83-33; 1982 Op. Att’y Gen. 82-33; 1982 Op. Att’y Gen. 82-64; 1980 Op. Att’y Gen. 80-96; 1978 Op. Att’y Gen. 78-37; 1977 Op. Att’y Gen. 77-54; 1992 Op. Att’y Gen. U92-10; 1991 Op. Att’y Gen. U91-11; 1989 Op. Att’y Gen. U89-21; 1986 Op. Att’y Gen. U86-20; 1981 Op. Att’y Gen. U81-12.
As noted earlier in this opinion, a nolo contendere plea is now considered a conviction for purposes of license suspension. O.C.G.A. § 40-5-63.
There is a full discussion of pleas of nolo contendere in a law review article entitled The Effect in Georgia of a Plea of Nolo Contendere Entered in a Georgia Court, George Weaver, 13 Ga. L. Rev. 723 (1979).