I’m headed to High Point today to teach a session for magistrates on crimes related to sex offender registration. I’m glad I looked at the slip opinions from the court of appeals before I left. A case decided today answers a somewhat frequently asked question about sex offender registration: Does a PJC for a sex crime count as a “final conviction” for purposes of the sex offender registration law? The answer, according to the majority of the panel in Walters v. Cooper, is no.
Walters involved a Franklin County man who pled guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery in 2006. (His offense date was March 2006—just a few months after that crime was made a reportable offense, effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2005. S.L. 2005-130.) Prayer for judgment was continued in the case, upon condition that he pay costs and attorney fees and not have any contact with the victim or her immediate family. He was not told to register as a sex offender at that time, and he didn’t.
In November 2011, the sheriff’s office told Mr. Walters that he needed to register because of his sexual battery conviction. So he did. But a few months later he filed a civil action seeking declaratory judgment that he was not required to register for a conviction for which prayer for judgment had been continued, and an order directing the attorney general’s office to remove him from the registry. The trial judge granted summary judgment for the AG. Mr. Walters appealed.
The court of appeals reversed, concluding that a “true PJC” like the one received by Mr. Walters was not a “final conviction” within the meaning of G.S. 14-208.6(4).
The appellate court first grappled with the question of whether Mr. Walters had actually received what it termed a “true PJC.” The court acknowledged the rule, discussed here, that a PJC can be converted into a final judgment if it includes conditions that amount to punishment. Notwithstanding cases like State v. Popp, 197 N.C. App. 226 (2009), in which the court has said that most anything other than costs and a requirement to obey the law converts a PJC into a judgment, the Walters court determined that “none of the conditions imposed upon the Plaintiff in this case appear to be punitive in nature . . . ,” and Mr. Walters had thus received a true PJC. Slip op. at 5–6. (The dissent disagreed on this point, as I’ll discuss in a moment.)
The court then moved on to the question of the meaning of the term “final conviction” in the sex offender registration law. The phrase is undefined, so the court reviewed how it had interpreted similar language in North Carolina’s motor vehicle statutes. Mainly the court looked to Florence v. Hiatt, 101 N.C. App. 539 (1991), where it had held that a PJC did not, under G.S. 20-24 as it was written at the time, constitute a “final conviction” triggering a license revocation by DMV. Chapter 20 defines “conviction” differently today (see G.S. 20-4.01(4a)), but the court presumed that when the General Assembly wrote the sex offender registration law in 1995, it was aware that modifying the word “conviction” with the adjective “final” would, in light of Florence, exclude convictions followed by true PJCs. Slip op. at 8 (distinguishing other statutory references to mere “convictions,” like Rule 609 and the possession of firearm by a felon law in G.S. 14-415.1).
Judge Steelman dissented. He disagreed that Mr. Walters’ PJC was a true PJC within the meaning of G.S. 15A-101(4a), which says that “[p]rayer for judgment continued upon payment of costs, without more, does not constitute the entry of judgment.” Here, the judge wrote, there was “more”—the “trial judge placed several explicit conditions upon the entry of the prayer for judgment continued,” slip op. at 2 (Steelman, J., dissenting), and thus converted the purported PJC into an entered judgment, see State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993) (“When, however, the trial judge imposes conditions amounting to punishment on the continuation of the entry of judgment, the judgment loses its character as a PJC and becomes a final judgment.” (internal quotations omitted)). The dissent would have concluded that the condition prohibiting Mr. Walters from contacting the victim or the victim’s family was clearly punishment, and thus rendered Walters’ PJC a “final conviction” for all purposes. No need to wade into the registration consequences of a “true PJC,” because Walters didn’t get one.
The dissent may set up review by the supreme court. For the moment, however, Walters bucks the clear trend that a PJC is the functional equivalent of a conviction in almost every way that matters.