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The Rule in the West case is that under California law, a criminal
defendant may enter a plea (a nolo contendere or no contest) plea
which has the effect of (1) denying that the defendant committed the
crime charged, and (2) admitting that there is sufficient evidence to
The People of the State of California v. West, 3 Cal. 3d 595; 477 P.2d
409 (California Supreme Court, 1970) involved Dale West, a criminal
defendant arrested and charged with possession of marijuana. Mr. West
unsuccessfully brought a motion to suppress certain evidence and with
the specter of a felony trial hanging over his head decided to plead
to a less serious charge of opening or maintaining a place for the
selling, giving away, or using narcotic (a misdemeanor) instead of
The court noted the following concerning the environment at the time
concerning marijuana convictions: The present case illustrates this
use of plea bargaining to achieve a more just result. As of May 7,
1968, when defendant entered his plea, the punishment for possession
of marijuana in the absence of an allegation of a prior narcotic
offense was imprisonment in the state prison for one to ten years.
Because of widespread public criticism of the undue harshness of this
mandatory treatment of possession of marijuana as a felony, the
Legislature on August 24, 1968, amended [the law] to permit the court
to hold that a violation of that section constituted a
felony-misdemeanor. In People v. Francis (1969) 71 Cal.2d 66, 75, we
held this amendment to be applicable to all cases in which judgment
had not become final before its effective date. As of May 1968,
however, the only method by which the court could classify and punish
defendant as a narcotics misdemeanant was by means of a defendant's
plea to some lesser offense, such as maintaining a place where
narcotics are used, then classifiable as a misdemeanor.
But he didnt plead guilty but rather nolo contendere. Blacks
Law Dictionary (7th ed.) at page 1070 defines nolo contendere as I do
not wish to contend; No Contest. This is a criminal defendants plea
that, while not admitting guilt, the defendant will not dispute the
charge. This plea is often preferable to a guilty plea, which can be
used against the defendant in a later civil lawsuit. See Blacks at
Mr. West, who remember had lost his motion to suppress the evidence in
the case (he claimed the police search of his vehicle was invalid
the cops said it was consensual), wanted to appeal the trial courts
decision to not suppress.
The Supreme Court of California found the following:
1. California law provides that the legal effect of a plea of "nolo
contendere" is the same as that of a plea of guilty, but the plea may
not be used against a defendant as an admission in any civil suit
based upon or growing out of the act upon which the criminal
prosecution is based. A plea of nolo contendere has the same force and
effect as a plea of guilty.
2. A plea of guilty or nolo contendere is not rendered "involuntary"
merely because it is the product of plea bargaining between a
defendant and the state.
3. A plea of guilty entered by one fully aware of the direct
consequences, including the actual value of any commitments made to
him by a trial court, prosecutor, or his own counsel, must stand
unless induced by threats or promises to discontinue improper
harassment, misrepresentation, including unfulfilled or unfulfillable
promises, or perhaps by promises that are by their nature improper as
having no proper relationship to the prosecutor's business, for
4. Counsel must disclose any plea bargain to the trial court, and the
terms of that agreement must be contained in the courts record
(transcript). The Cal. Supreme Court said that there were four
possible methods of incorporation: (1) the bargain could be stated
orally and recorded by the court reporter, whose notes then must be
preserved or transcribed; (2) the bargain could be set forth by the
clerk in the minutes of the court; (3) the parties could file a
written stipulation stating the terms of the bargain; (4) finally,
counsel or the court itself may find it useful to prepare and utilize
forms for the recordation of plea bargains.
5. If a defendant pleads guilty as part of a bargain with an district
attorney, where the defendant is assured of receiving in return for
his plea probation, a lenient sentence, or some other form of special
consideration, the trial judge may NOT impose judgment contrary to the
terms of such agreement without giving the defendant an opportunity to
withdraw his guilty plea or nolo plea.
6. When a defendant pleads not guilty, a trial court lacks
jurisdiction to convict him of an offense that is neither charged nor
necessarily included in the alleged crime. This reasoning rests upon a
constitutional basis: due process of law requires that an accused be
advised of the charges against him in order that he may have a
reasonable opportunity to prepare and present his defense and not be
taken by surprise by evidence offered at his trial. Therefore, if a
criminal complaint adequately notifies the defendant that the state
seeks to prove the elements of a lesser offense, the trial court has
jurisdiction to convict of that lesser offense although the statutory
definition of the lesser crime does not logically compose a part of
the greater. Since a defendant who requests or acquiesces in
conviction of a lesser offense cannot legitimately claim lack of
notice, the trial court has jurisdiction to convict him of that
7. A defendant who knowingly and voluntarily pleads guilty or nolo
contendere can hardly claim that he is unaware that he might be
convicted of the offense to which he pleads; his plea demonstrates
that he not only knows of the violation but is also prepared to admit
each of its elements.
The courts final paragraph sums it up: In conclusion, we reiterate
our conviction that the plea bargain plays a vital role in our system
of criminal procedure; we would be loath to reduce its usefulness by
confining it within the straight jacket of "necessarily included
offenses." We emphasize, again, however, that the plea bargain can be
viable only if it is candidly disclosed to the trial court and
incorporated in the record of the case. Through that procedure the
murky fog of subterfuge that now suffuses the plea bargain can be
This case, the People of California v. West, has not been overturned
and there do not appear to be any serious challenges to the
propositions for which the case stands for.
If you use a Google Search with the terms 477 P.2d 409 (or click on
this link: ://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&q=%22477+P%2E2d+409%22
) there are some interesting links to cases where the legal
propositions of West were used.
If you require any clarification, please click the button marked
CLARIFICATION and I will be happy to focus on the question.
Best of luck!
Blacks Law Dictionary (7th ed.)
Wests California Reporter