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Criminal Justice Section Website › Newsletters › The True Bill, February 2012 › Let’s Talk about the Prayer for Judgment Continued (“PJC”)

Let’s Talk about the Prayer for Judgment Continued (“PJC”)

Article Date: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Written By: Dionne R. Gonder-Stanley

Practitioners who regularly handle criminal and traffic cases are familiar with basic aspects of the prayer for judgment continued (“PJC”). However, we do not often talk about the use of PJCs as a matter of public policy. Based on relatively recent legislation regarding PJCs, now may be a good time to engage in such discussion.

In April 2011, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 852, which is entitled “An Act to provide that the court shall not dispose of a criminal action that is a class B1, B2, C, D, or E felony by ordering a prayer for judgment continued that exceeds twelve months.” If it is to become law, House Bill 852 must be passed by the Senate during the 2012 legislative session. If enacted as currently written, House Bill 852 will limit a trial court judge’s authority to grant a PJC in a serious felony case by requiring that judgment to be entered within 12 months (or, if in the interests of justice, no more than 24 months) after the defendant’s guilt was established.

More important than the substantive details of House Bill 852 is the fact that, if enacted, this will be the third time in six years that the General Assembly has placed restrictions upon trial judges’ authority to utilize PJCs. In 2006, the General Assembly amended G.S. § 20-217(e) to prohibit judges from granting PJCs for school bus stop arm violations. In 2007, the General Assembly amended G.S. § 20-141(p) to restrict judges from entering PJCs in speeding cases where the charged speed was more than 25 miles per hour over the limit. How should we view this trend toward limiting the use of PJCs in our criminal and traffic courts? Will this trend create positive or negative changes in the way cases are handled? This article cannot begin to answer these questions here, but it can spark a debate among practitioners and judges by examining the governing law and describing a few broad issues that are worth in-depth discussion and analysis.

The Current Law Governing PJCs
A PJC is a procedural device where, after a defendant’s guilt is established by plea or trial, a judge decides not to impose a final judgment and sentence immediately upon the defendant. With only a few exceptions,1 North Carolina law allows a trial judge to grant a prayer for judgment continued to a defendant in any criminal or traffic case, including cases involving felonies, misdemeanors, or infractions. The various ways in which judges use PJCs in cases can be categorized as follows: temporary PJCs, PJCs requiring the defendant’s compliance with conditions (“the conditional PJC”), and indefinite PJCs without conditions (“the unconditional PJC”).

Among the different situations where PJCs are used, probably the least controversial and least likely to produce public concern is the temporary PJC. A temporary PJC is used when, following a guilty verdict or plea, a trial judge orders a short-term continuance of the sentencing hearing for administrative reasons. For example, after a lengthy trial, a judge might enter a temporary PJC to give the parties a few days to prepare for the sentencing hearing. After the continuance, the judge will hold the sentencing hearing and pronounce a final judgment.

Unlike temporary PJCs, conditional and unconditional PJCs are of longer-term or indefinite duration, and may possibly become the permanent disposition of a case. A conditional PJC is used when a judge establishes explicit conditions that a defendant must satisfy in order to avoid final judgment and sentence. A defendant must consent to the conditional PJC, but consent may be implied from the defendant’s failure to request the entry of a final judgment. To avoid a double jeopardy violation, a trial judge must limit the conditions placed upon a PJC to (1) the payment of court costs and/or (2) a requirement that the defendant follow the law.2 If a defendant satisfies the announced conditions of the PJC, no judgment is entered and the PJC becomes the permanent disposition of the case. If the defendant does not satisfy the conditions, the judge will impose a final judgment and sentence, taking into account all relevant sentencing factors.

In contrast to the conditional PJC, an unconditional PJC occurs when a judge imposes no conditions on a defendant, but fails to enter judgment for an indeterminate period of time. With an unconditional PJC, a judge may later impose a final judgment and sentence on the defendant if it is “within a reasonable time” after the initial finding of guilt.3 If an unreasonable period of time expires, the trial court will lose jurisdiction over the case and will no longer be authorized to impose a final judgment, making the PJC a permanent disposition of the case. Determining reasonableness on a case-by-case basis, the Court of Appeals has upheld the entry of a final judgment when as many as five years had passed since the unconditional PJC was ordered.4 

Issues Worthy of In-depth Discussion & Analysis
Some of the policy issues arising out of the use of PJCs in our courts include (1) fairness in sentencing, (2) consequences for the defendant, (3) transparency in the judicial system, and (4) the influence of history. These issues are primarily related to the use of conditional and unconditional PJCs as described above because of their longer duration and potential to become permanent. Therefore, the discussion below does not pertain to temporary PJCs which, in any event, do not appear to be a target for the General Assembly’s recent activity.

Fairness in Sentencing: Depending on one’s perspective, the influence of PJCs on fairness in sentencing may be positive or negative. On one hand, PJCs can be viewed as useful tools to ensure fair sentencing because they provide judges with the flexibility needed to account for anomalous cases. Practitioners are well aware of the fact that there are times when a defendant’s actions might satisfy the letter of the law but, for a variety of reasons, do not truly call for the level of punishment described in the General Statutes. In this view, without having access to a tool like the PJC, a trial judge has less ability to do justice and be fair when sentencing a defendant in the unusual case.
On the other hand, PJCs can be viewed as obstacles to the General Assembly’s attempts to ensure fairness and consistency in sentencing. The availability of a PJC as a dispositional option in a case could allow improper factors, such as friendship or race or gender, to creep into the sentencing process. Under this view, if a judge can disregard Structured Sentencing laws by entering a PJC in a criminal case and never imposing a final judgment, isn’t it possible for that judge to do so only for reasons of bias or prejudice instead of for justice and fairness?

Consequences for the Defendant: For an individual who has just been found guilty of a criminal or traffic offense, one of the most obvious consequences of a PJC is the avoidance of punishment for now and the possibility that punishment might never be imposed. One policy question is whether it is appropriate for a defendant to ever be allowed to escape punishment for an offense. The desire to avoid punishment is so strong for many defendants that they will readily accept a PJC, even when it means giving up the right to immediately appeal the finding of guilt5 and living life with an unresolved case hanging over one’s head.

In addition to the obvious consequences of a PJC, there are less obvious collateral consequences that defendants might face if they receive a PJC for an offense. Such collateral consequences are best demonstrated by the question of whether a PJC on one’s record is a conviction. In a technical sense, any offense resulting in a PJC is not a conviction because it does not result in the entry of a final judgment. However, many practitioners already know that this technical concept of conviction only goes so far. With respect to traffic offenses, an offense resulting in a PJC will be treated as a conviction if the defendant already received 2 PJCs in the previous five years, or if the offense involved a commercial motor vehicle.6 For criminal offenses falling under the Structured Sentencing Act, a PJC will be treated as a conviction for purposes of assessing criminal record points if a defendant later faces sentencing for another offense.7 In addition, a defendant who is guilty of certain types of criminal offenses will not be able to use a PJC to avoid problems in the ability to become a licensed law enforcement officer,8 the ability to obtain a gun permit,9 or (for noncitizens) the ability to remain in this country legally.10

When considering some of these consequences for defendants, it becomes apparent that the law governing the consequences of PJCs is fairly complex. Is such complexity necessary, or are there ways that the laws governing PJCs might be revised and simplified? In addition, should the law take into account those pro se defendants who will seek a PJC in court because they heard it was a good thing, but who do not understand the true legal consequences they face?

Transparency in the Judicial System: There is a public concern about the transparency of sentencing in our judicial system. When laws written on the books dictate a specific range of punishments for a criminal or traffic offense, people do not generally understand why a trial judge might not give an offender a punishment from within that range. PJCs have been portrayed by the media as “legal loopholes” that allow offenders to obtain unwarranted “deals” and to be let “off easy.”  Although practitioners and judges understand that a PJC could mean the difference between a case being resolved by a negotiated guilty plea and the case proceeding to a lengthy trial, non-lawyers do not always understand this dynamic. As such, when harsh economic times have recently resulted in significant cuts to the funding for our judicial system, we must ask whether the judicial system can afford to be viewed as being non-transparent and not willing to abide by legislative directives as to sentencing.

The Influence of History: Any in-depth analysis and discussion of how PJCs are utilized in our criminal and traffic courts should acknowledge the influence of history. The PJC has been a tool used in our court system since at least 1907, as documented in the North Carolina Supreme Court opinion in State v. Hilton, 151 N.C. 687 (1909). This longevity suggests that PJCs have an important role in our criminal and traffic court system and that judges’ authority to utilize PJCs should not be restricted without careful consideration. Do we need to fight tooth and nail to keep the PJC in our courts? Or, is history no longer a sufficient justification for our laws and practices with respect to PJCs?

An article in this newsletter cannot fully address the legal and policy issues that arise from the use of PJCs in our criminal and traffic courts. However, I hope that we can use this to start a conversation with our fellow practitioners, judges, and legislators. Let us really talk about the PJC and undertake a comprehensive review of its future viability in our court system. •

End Notes
1. The only exceptions to a trial judge’s broad authority to utilize PJCs are in cases involving driving while impaired, In re Greene, 297 N.C. 305 (1979), speeding in excess of 25 miles per hour over the limit, G.S. § 20-141(p), passing a stopped school bus, G.S. § 20-217(e) , or capital murder. G.S. § 15A-2000. See State v. Popp, 197 N.C. App. 226 (2009).
2. State v. Degree, 110 N.C. App. 638, 641 (1993).
3. See State v. Lea, 156 N.C. App. 178, 180-182 (2003).
4. The law is clear that there can be no appeal without the entry of a final judgment, and that the entry of a PJC is not a final judgment. See G.S. §§ 15A-101(4a) & 15A-1444.
5. G.S. § 20-4.01(4a).
6. See State v. Canellas, 164 N.C. App. 775 (2004).
7. See Britt v. N.C. Sheriff’s Educ. & Training Standards Comm’n, 348 N.C. 573 (1998).
8. See Friend v. State, 169 N.C. App. 99, review denied, 359 N.C. 631 (2005).
9. Sejal Zota & John Rubin, Immigration Consequences of a Criminal Conviction in North Carolina 49-50 (2008).
10. Pat Stith, et al., “Cops write tickets, speeders get deals,” News & Observer, May 15, 2007 at A1.

Dionne R. Gonder-Stanley is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, where she supervises students working in the Criminal Defense Clinic and teaches courses in basic trial practice and North Carolina criminal litigation.

Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.