Does a “Prayer for Judgment Continued” Differ Very Much from a “Prayer for Judgment Granted”?

Once upon a time in the North Carolina courts, a prayer for judgment continued (PJC) could have a positive impact on a person’s future. Essentially, the prosecution would pray—that is, move—for entry of judgment, and the judge would continue the prayer and withhold judgment rather than granting the prayer and entering judgment. See State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957) (discussing procedure). Older cases recognized that a judge’s exercise of his or her authority to defer judgment in the interest of justice did not constitute a conviction. A PJC was thus treated like a prosecutor’s exercise of discretion in deferring prosecution. The deferral not only avoided imposition of sentence in the criminal case; it also meant that the matter did not count as a conviction in later, collateral proceedings. See Barbour v. Scheidt, 246 N.C. 169 (1957) (discussing treatment of PJCs). The Court of Appeals’ February 18, 2020 decision in Mace v. North Carolina Dept. of Insurance provides a reminder that times have changed and a PJC usually provides no protection from the collateral consequences of a conviction.

As with any discussion of PJCs, it is important first to identify the kind of PJC we’re talking about. This post is about a true PJC, one in which a judge finds a person guilty after a plea or trial and indefinitely continues the entry of judgment without imposing punishment (court costs are not considered punishment). A true PJC is the end of the case, the final disposition. A judge may withhold judgment and continue a case for other reasons, such as to obtain additional information for sentencing. But such an order is not a true PJC in the sense discussed here because it does not terminate the proceedings.

In the Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Mace, the judge granted the defendant a true PJC after finding him guilty of simple assault at a bench trial. The defendant was a licensed insurance agent. As such, he had to report all convictions to the North Carolina Department of Insurance (DOI). Because he believed that a PJC was not a conviction, he did not report the case. The DOI learned about the case and imposed a $100 civil penalty for the defendant’s failure to report the PJC, which the DOI viewed as a conviction. On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the DOI’s determination.

The defendant argued that a PJC after a guilty plea constitutes a conviction but not when a judge enters a PJC after a guilty verdict at a contested trial. The argument seems foreign now, but at one time the distinction may have had some support in North Carolina law. See Jessica Smith, Prayer for Judgment Continued at 3 (Dec. 2013) (interpreting State v. Lynch, 337 N.C. 415 (1994), as holding that a PJC after trial may not constitute a conviction for purposes of impeachment by conviction under N.C. Rule of Evidence 609). The Court of Appeals swatted away that argument based on the specific language of the insurance statutes. The statute requiring reporting, G.S. 58-2-69(c), defines conviction as including an “adjudication of guilt, a plea of guilty, or a plea of nolo contendere.” The Court held that the plain and unambiguous language of this statute included a PJC following an adjudication of guilt at trial as well as after a guilty or no contest plea.

Beware that the Court in Mace did not limit its observations about the impact of a PJC to the specific language in the insurance statutes. Even without that language, it is unlikely to matter whether a PJC follows a verdict of guilt at trial or the entry of a guilty plea. The determinative question is whether the statute at issue treats a PJC as a conviction. See State v. Sidberry, 337 N.C. 779 (1994) (concluding that State could impeach defendant with PJC as a conviction under N.C. Evidence Rule 609); Britt v. North Carolina Sheriffs’ Educ. and Training Standards Comm’n, 348 N.C. 573 (1998) (deferring to commission’s interpretation that PJC constituted conviction and upholding revocation of deputy sheriff’s certification); State v. Hatcher, 136 N.C. App. 524 (2000) (allowing true PJC to be used as prior conviction under structured sentencing for new offense).

Not all statutes treat a PJC as a conviction. For example, Mace recognized that North Carolina’s sex offender registration statutes require a “final conviction” to trigger registration. A PJC is not a final conviction for that purpose. See Walters v. Cooper, 226 N.C. App. 166 (2013). PJCs remain beneficial to defendants charged with violations of Chapter 20 of the North Carolina General Statutes because Chapter 20 defines convictions in a way that specifically excludes PJCs in many instances. See G.S. 20-4.01(4a). An open question is whether a PJC counts as a conviction under expunction statutes that make a prior conviction a bar to relief. See John Rubin, Relief from a Criminal Conviction: Frequently Asked Questions (Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC)) (2018) (interpreting statutes as providing for expunction of a PJC on the same grounds as for a conviction but not necessarily treating a PJC as a prior conviction that bars expunction of other matters). The North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that a PJC is a conviction barring a person previously convicted of a felony from possessing a firearm, but the Fourth Circuit recently observed that the interpretation is inconsistent with North Carolina precedent. See Jamie Markham, A Conditional Discharge Is Not a Conviction for Purposes of the Federal Felon-in-Possession Law (Jan. 15, 2020) (discussing PJCs and conditional discharges); see also Gonzales v. Sessions, 894 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2018) (holding that PJC imposing costs was not conviction for immigration purposes because it did not impose punishment or penalty).

Once upon a time under North Carolina law a PJC had a limited impact. Mace reinforces that the reality is now reversed. A PJC may avoid collateral consequences in some instances, but the outcome is idiosyncratic at best, dependent on the language of the statute at issue and the courts’ interpretations.

Readers, if you’re aware of situations in which a PJC may still have benefits, please feel free to leave a comment.