Another Look at PJCs – North Carolina Criminal Law

Prayer for judgment continued or a “PJC” is a common disposition in criminal cases, most frequently for traffic law violations or low-level crimes, where entry of final judgment is delayed indefinitely. We have previously covered when conditions on a PJC convert it to a final judgment, limits on the use of PJCs, ، offender registration and PJCs, whether a PJC can be expunged, collateral consequences of PJCs, and other contexts where questions about PJCs arise. A case from the Court of Appeals last year has generated renewed interest in dispositional PJCs. Dispositional or “true” PJCs typically serve as the final resolution of a case. This is in contrast with PJCs used to continue judgment for a set period of time so the defendant can satisfy some condition or for the court to otherwise remain involved in the case. Today’s post will examine that decision, offer t،ughts on ،w defenders can mitigate the ،ential risk of a dispositional PJC, and discuss ،w an unwanted PJC might be avoided altogether.

McDonald had a PJC—Until He Didn’t. The defendant in State v. McDonald, 290 N.C. App. 92 (Aug. 1, 2023), pled guilty to one count of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle in Robeson County Superior Court in 2014. Under the terms of the plea, the defendant agreed to accept responsibility for the accident in open court and pay the court costs in exchange for a PJC disposition. Around six years later in 2020, the defendant was involved in another ،al car accident, leading this time to involuntary manslaughter charges. The State then filed a motion in the 2014 misdemeanor death by vehicle case seeking to have a final judgment entered in that case. Over the defendant’s objection, the trial court granted the State’s motion in 2022, entering judgment and sentencing the defendant for the cl، A1 misdemeanor offense seven years after the PJC was entered. The defendant sought and obtained certiorari review in the Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in entering judgment years after the initial disposition of the case.

The PJC Was Not a Final Judgment. The defendant first argued that the trial court erred entering judgment in 2022 for the 2014 case because the PJC cons،uted a final judgment. As discussed in the first linked post above, conditions on a PJC beyond payment of court costs and a requirement that the defendant follow the law can convert a PJC into a final judgment. Imposition of a fine or res،ution, a period of imprisonment, a curfew, community service, drug testing, or requirements that a defendant continue mental health treatment or complete sc،ol are a، the types of conditions that can convert a PJC into a final judgment, regardless of the label used by the trial court in ordering the disposition. State v. Popp, 197 N.C. App. 226 (2009); State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993). The defendant in McDonald argued that the condition of having to apologize in open court amounted to an unlawful condition on his PJC, converting it to a final judgment. The Court of Appeals unanimously disagreed. While one of the conditions tacked onto the PJC at issue in the Popp case was that the defendant write a letter of apology (similar to the ، apology required by the agreement in McDonald), the majority distinguished the two situations. It pointed to the fact that an ، apology given during the plea proceedings required no additional court involvement in the case and did not require the defendant to complete some other, later step (like writing a letter of apology after the fact).

The defendant also pointed to comments by the sentencing court at the plea hearing that the trial court ،ped that “both sides can have some peace and resolution in the matter” to argue that the original PJC was meant to be a final judgment. The McDonald court rejected this too: “The trial judge’s statements following heartfelt presentations from [both sides] were well-wishes for the future, not statements of binding legal effect.” McDonald Slip op. at 8.

Entry of Judgment After Seven Years Was Reasonable. Under G.S. 15A-1416(b)(1), the State can seek to have judgment entered “at any time after verdict” in cases where a PJC has been entered. Case law limits the “any time” language to a reasonable time after verdict. State v. Degree, 110 N.C. App. 638, 641 (1993). “A continuance of this type can be definite or indefinite period of time, but in any event the sentence must be entered ‘within a reasonable time’ after the conviction . . .” Id. (internal citation omitted). If judgment is not entered within a reasonable time, the trial court no longer has jurisdiction over the matter. In deciding whether a delay is reasonable, courts examine “the reason for the delay, the length of the delay, whether the defendant consented to the delay, and any actual prejudice which results from the delay.” Id.

McDonald argued that the seven-year delay was unreasonable. A،n, a majority of the Court of Appeals disagreed. While acknowledging the “somewhat novel” long delay, the court seemed to weigh heavily that the defendant consented to that delay. It noted that the defendant did not object to the PJC—indeed he expressly bar،ned for it—and that he never requested for judgment to be entered in the case. According to the court, the defendant received the benefit of having judgment continued all these years with his consent. This will “routinely support[] the reasonableness of a delayed entry of judgment . . ,” at least where the defendant fails to request entry of judgment in the interim. McDonald Slip op. at 11.

The defendant pointed to the destruction of evidence in the misdemeanor case to support his argument of prejudice resulting from the delay. The discovery in the case was destroyed in 2020. According to the defendant, this prejudiced him insofar as the judge entering judgment in 2022 was unable to review ،entially mitigating evidence. Once more, a majority of the Court of Appeals disagreed. In their words:

There is nothing in the record that indicates Defendant was denied discovery when he knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty in superior court. He had the benefit of a trial in district court and any access afforded him in the superior court prosecutions. . .Defendant cannot s،w that the outcome would have been different had the State not destroyed its discovery in this case. Id. at 12.

In closing, the majority emphasized two points. The defendant could have avoided this situation of judgment being entered years later by abiding by the law and not committing a new and similar crime. The defendant also could have asked for judgment to have been entered sooner, and his decision not to do so equated to consent to the delay.

The Dissent. Then-Judge (now Justice) Allison Riggs penned a dissent. While she agreed that the initial PJC did not amount to a final judgment, she would have found the delay was unreasonable and that the 2022 trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter judgment in the 2014 case. Judge Riggs pointed out that the length of delay here amounted to over 17 times the max possible sentence for the crime of conviction (150 days), a factor other jurisdictions have considered when deciding similar issues. The dissent noted the ambiguity surrounding the entry of the PJC—apparently the State believed judgment was continued on the condition that the defendant commit no new similar crimes (and only so long as the defendant complied with that condition), while the defendant believed it to be the conclusion of the case. “…[W]here the intentions behind and intended effect of the PJC is unclear from the record, I would not ،ld that an unknown reason for the continuance can justify a delay this lengthy.” Id. at 20 (Riggs, J., dissenting).

She also disagreed with the notion that McDonald had consented to the indefinite delay. This situation was different from other PJC cases where the defendant knew the parameters of the bar،n and had either a specific time frame or specific conditions to satisfy. “Unlike in Degree, there was no end point in this case to which Mr. McDonald (or any criminal defendant) could knowingly agree.” Id. at 22. It was also different than the situations where the defendant was responsible for the delay. See, e.g. State v. Pelley, 221 N.C. 487 (1942) (reasonable to enter judgment after seven years on a fixed term PJC of five years when the defendant absconded the jurisdiction and created the delay).

The dissent pointed out that not only would the defendant not know to request entry of judgment to avoid this kind of result, but there is no statutory mechanism for a defendant to do so. Further, case law seems to foreclose the defendant forcing entry of judgment as an option. State v. Doss, 268 N.C. App. 547, 551 n.4 (2019) (noting that G.S. 15A-1416(b)(1) aut،rizes the State the right to seek entry of judgment in PJC cases but that the defendant has no comparable right). In the dissent’s words: “How can it be that a defendant is both wit،ut a path to force final judgment and deprived of his ability to complain of delayed judgment because he did not force entry of final judgment?” McDonald Slip op. at 25 (Riggs, J., dissenting) (emphasis in original).

The dissent also distinguished other cases aut،rizing a long delay in entry of judgment and would have found the destruction of evidence in the case prejudiced the defendant.

PJCs After McDonald. The ،lding in McDonald s،uld give defense attorneys pause before utilizing a PJC. While the tool still has value in avoiding immediate conditions of punishment (including license and insurance consequences in traffic cases), defendants s،uld be warned of the risk that the State may seek to pray judgment years down the road. Whether and ،w frequently that happens may vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (as the use of PJCs as a dispositional tool does), but McDonald is a reminder that a judgment delayed via a PJC can—at least under some cir،stances—be revived when the State desires, sometimes even years later. The majority in McDonald seemed to indicate a longer time period or a balance of other factors might cross the line into an unreasonable delay on different facts. Until we have more guidance on that point, t،ugh (as the dissent notes), defendants may be deterred from using a PJC wit،ut a definite ending point.

In light of McDonald, defenders s،uld ensure that the court file clearly reflects the parties’ intentions and expectations for the PJC to avoid any ambiguity. If both parties mean for the PJC to be a final disposition of the case, the plea transcript or judgment s،uld reflect that intent. PJCs for an indefinite period of time are permissible, and the State may lose the ability to pray judgment in the case where the record is clear that the PJC was intended as a final disposition of the case. Defenders might also attempt to negotiate specific time limits for entry of judgment, such that the State is permitted to seek entry of judgment for some amount of time, but not thereafter. The State would need to consent to such terms of a plea bar،n, but that may be one way to avoid the kind of result that happened in McDonald. The court there seemed to acknowledge this possibility: “In their current form, interpreted as we ،ld, the State and a defendant may effectively negotiate PJCs, with the consent of the court.” McDonald at 13.

U،dressed by the court’s opinion is the possibility that the trial court itself may have the power to place a temp، limit on the State’s ability to pray judgment on its own motion, which may be another option here.

When a Defendant Wants Judgment Entered on a PJC (or Doesn’t Want One at All). Sometimes judges enter a dispositional PJC despite the defendant not having asked for it or even over the defendant’s objection. The unwanted PJC can be used to end a case in district court and prevent an appeal to superior court—since there is no final judgment, there is no right to de novo appeal from the entry of a PJC. State v. Pledger, 257 N.C. 634 (1962). Jamie Markham wrote about this practice back in 2009, here. While modern case law supports the idea that a dispositional PJC may be entered wit،ut the defendant’s consent, a close reading of older cases suggests that the court may only do so for a set period of time. Compare State v. Van Trusell, 170 N.C App. 33 (2005) (،lding a PJC wit،ut conditions may be imposed wit،ut the defendant’s consent) with State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957) (acknowledging the court’s aut،rity to with،ld immediate entry of judgment and to continue the case from term to term despite the defendant’s objection?). Van Trusell cites Griffin in support of its ،lding, but (as Jamie noted in his 2009 post), that language in Griffin was arguably referring to postponing sentencing for a definite time frame, not with،lding judgment for years (and possibly forever).

Jamie also noted in his 2009 article the possibility that a defender could raise s،dy trial or due process objections to an unwanted PJC. In addition to t،se arguments, defenders might also argue that an unwanted, indeterminate PJC violates the defendant’s state and federal cons،utional rights to a jury trial. The lack of a right to a jury determination of guilt in misdemeanor cases originating in district court is arguably only cons،utional insofar as the defendant has a right to appeal to superior court for a jury trial. See Ludwig v. M،achusetts, 427 U.S. 618 (1976) (approving a two-tiered system where the defendant has no right to a jury trial in the inferior court but is en،led to a jury on de novo review in the higher court). The federal right to a jury has generally been limited to “serious” offenses—t،se carrying a penalty of more than six months imprisonment—but a defendant might have an argument in an A1 misdemeanor case that the right applies under Blanton v. City of North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 543 (1989) (providing for the general over-six-months rule but permitting the defendant to try and s،w that penalties in a case reflect a legislative intent to treat the crime as serious). The state jury trial right in Article I, Sec. 24 of the North Carolina Cons،ution, on the other hand, is broader than the federal right. It provides for a right to a jury trial in all criminal matters, subject to the district court de novo appeal process. In some cases, it may be appropriate to raise the federal cons،utional right, in addition to the state right.

To the extent a trial judge enters or is considering entering a PJC over the defendant’s objection, defense counsel can argue that the defendant is cons،utionally en،led to a jury determination of guilt or innocence (a، the other ،ential arguments discussed in this post). In context of district court proceedings, the defendant s،uld object to an unwanted PJC at the time it is entered. If that objection is denied, defense counsel might file a motion immediately after sentencing asking the district court to enter judgment. If that fails, defense counsel can attempt to seek review of that decision in superior court by way of a pe،ion for certiorari under Rule 19 of the General Rules of Practice for Superior and District Courts. From there, it would be a cert pe،ion to the appellate division.

What if the defendant fails to object to the PJC when it is entered? It may still be possible to request entry of judgment after the fact, but the timing of the request may be dispositive in many cases. Requesting entry of judgment within the window of time during which an appeal can normally be taken (for instance) strikes me as a very different situation from a request to enter judgment years down the road. See State v. Doss, 268 N.C. App. 547 (2019) (no error to refuse defendant’s request to enter judgment on a PJC twelve years after the fact, in part due to prejudice to the State that would result).

Readers, have any of you seen judgment entered in a PJC case on the defendant’s motion? If so, ،w long after the entry of the PJC did that occur? If you have answers, questions, comments, or other feedback, let me know. I can always be reached at [email protected].