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The Unwelcome Prayer for Judgment Continued

September 18th, 2009
By Jamie Markham

Defendants are generally pretty happy to get a PJC. When a judge continues prayer for judgment the defendant avoids punishment and is often able to sidestep a car insurance rate hike. That’s not to say a PJC is a total free pass. I wrote before about how a PJC will certainly count as a prior conviction if the defendant is later sentenced for another crime, and I’m still unclear about how a judge can later “dismiss” a PJC if a defendant behaves for a certain amount of time. But more often than not, a PJC is a welcome act of judicial mercy.

But suppose the defendant doesn’t want a PJC. Maybe she wants to go into the military, which may consider the PJC to be an unresolved legal matter, and therefore an impediment to enlistment. Or maybe the PJC had unforeseen employment consequences for, say, a commercial driver. Maybe he wants to appeal the case, but is being told he can’t – as something other than a final judgment, a PJC cannot be appealed. State v. Pledger, 257 N.C. 634 (1962). Whatever the reason, sometimes the defendant just needs judgment to be entered. Under G.S. 15A-1416(b) the State can make a motion for appropriate relief for imposition of sentence when prayer for judgment has been continued, but there’s no corresponding statute allowing the defendant to do so. If the judge is unwilling to enter judgment, and the State is unwilling to pray judgment, is the defendant really stuck with the PJC?

The black-letter rule that has emerged over the years is that “North Carolina courts have the power to continue prayer for judgment without the defendant’s consent, so long as no conditions are imposed on the defendant.” State v. Van Trusell, 170 N.C. App. 33 (2005). (Of course, in many cases the inclusion of conditions would convert a would-be PJC into entry of judgment, as the court of appeals reminded us in State v. Popp. So let’s assume we’re talking about a truly conditionless PJC.) But if you go back in time and look at the cases cited in support of the rule, you see it begin to unravel. To the DeLorean

Van Trusell cites to State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957) – the leading case on a judge’s authority to continue prayer for judgment. In Griffin the supreme court wrote that “[i]n the event the court, after a conviction or plea, finds it desirable not to pass judgment immediately, it may continue the prayer for judgment from one term to another without the defendant’s consent if no terms or conditions are imposed.” Sounds pretty similar to the rule stated in Van Trussel, right?  But notice the parts I italicized. It seems to me that Griffin wasn’t talking about a judge’s authority to continue prayer for judgment forever, but rather the authority to take additional time, if needed, to decide a case. In fact, elsewhere in Griffin the court says “the inherent power of a court having jurisdiction to suspend judgment or stay execution of sentence on conviction in a criminal case for a determinate period and for a reasonable length of time has been recognized and upheld in this jurisdiction.”

Griffin cites to State v. Burgess, 192 N.C. 668 (1926). In that case the judge continued prayer for judgment after a defendant was convicted of an assault with a deadly weapon. The defendant “excepted” to the PJC, wanting to appeal the conviction. The supreme court held that the defendant “had a substantial right that some final judgment be rendered so as to enable him to preserve his right under the law.” The court went on to say that a judge could continue a prayer for judgment “from one term to another” without a defendant’s consent – but again, it appears to me that the court is talking about a delay, not a disposition.

I won’t go back any further than that for now, but suffice it to say there are some gaps in the “inherent authority” grounding of the permanent, unwelcome PJC.  In closing I’ll also point out Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213 (1967), a Supreme Court case arising out of North Carolina’s “nolle prosequi with leave” procedure. In that case the State entered a nolle prosequi with leave – “a declaration on the part of the solicitor that he will not at that time prosecute the suit farther,” State v. Klopfer, 266 N.C. 349, 350 (1966) – in a misdemeanor trespass case. The defendant, a Duke professor and civil rights activist, wanted the State to go ahead and prosecute his case, complaining that the continued “pendency of the indictment greatly interfered with his professional activities and with his travel here and abroad.” The state supreme court said the defendant could not compel the State to proceed. Id. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding on speedy trial grounds that the State could not “indefinitely prolong[] this oppression.” Klopfer, 386 U.S. at 222. Concurring in the result of the case, Justice Harlan wrote that “this unusual North Carolina procedure, which in effect . . . put[s] a person under the cloud of an unliquidated criminal charge for an indeterminate period, violates the requirement of fundamental fairness assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Could a similar argument be made in the PJC context?

This post benefits from research done by School of Government law clerk Chris Heagarty.

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One Response to “The Unwelcome Prayer for Judgment Continued”

  1. Jose says:

    I was wondering about PJC… In my case I got a PJC after I pleaded guilty to trespassing, but honestly this was a bogus charge, what are my chances of getting this removed after 3 years? I’ve never had any law issues before, and I read a little on PJC’s and how they can be completely removed after 3 years; is this true for this offense?

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