PJCs for Serious Felonies

Sometimes prayer for judgment is continued on a serious (Class B1–E) felony conviction to give a defendant time to demonstrate good behavior before sentencing. What happens if that PJC extends beyond the time limitations set out in G.S. 15A-1331.2? Does the court lose jurisdiction to enter judgment in the case and sentence the defendant?

No—at least not under the facts of recently decided State v. Marino.

First of all, you might ask, what time limitations? Under a law enacted in 2012, a court may not dispose of a Class B1–E felony conviction with a PJC that exceeds 12 months (plus an additional period not to exceed 12 months if the court finds that more time is needed in the interest of justice). G.S. 15A-1331.2. I wrote a little bit about that change here.

In Marino, the defendant pled guilty to multiple drug crimes, including Class D trafficking. Part of the plea agreement was that prayer for judgment would be continued to give the defendant an opportunity to provide truthful testimony against any charged co-defendants.

Apparently the defendant cooperated, because about 19 months later, the State prayed judgment and the defendant was sentenced pursuant to a substantial assistance finding that reduced his sentence by over 10 years and $200,000.

Later, the defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction to enter any sentence at all because it had failed to comply with G.S. 15A-1331.2. In short, the 19-month delay exceeded the 12-month maximum PJC period for a Class B1–E felony set out in the law.

The trial judge denied the MAR.

The court of appeals affirmed the denial, concluding that G.S. 15A-1331.2 should not be construed as jurisdictional in nature. The law does not mention jurisdiction, and its legislative history (impressively documented by reference to audio archives from the General Assembly) indicates that it was meant to prevent defendants from escaping punishment for serious crimes via PJC, not to create a new timeline through which a court might be divested of jurisdiction to enter a final judgment.

With that in mind, the court decided that prior common-law principles—not the timeline in G.S. 15A-1331.2—informed the trial court’s jurisdiction to enter judgment on a PJC’d conviction. And under our existing case law, the court has jurisdiction as long as prayer for judgment is not continued “for an unreasonable time.” The reasonableness of the delay is informed by the reason and length for it, whether the defendant consented to it, and whether he or she was prejudiced by it. See State v. Degree, 110 N.C. App. 638 (1993).

In this case, the court concluded that the delay was not unreasonable. It was well within the range of delays previously deemed reasonable by the courts (some of which were as long as seven years). The defendant consented to it in that he never asked the court to enter judgment. And finally the defendant was not prejudiced by the delay, but rather benefitted from it through a substantially reduced sentence.

Even if G.S. 15A-1331.2 doesn’t impose a strict jurisdictional limit, it’s conceivable that the law might inform the analysis of the reasonableness of a delay in sentencing. The Marino court noted in a footnote that the 19-month delay here was within the 24-month delay permissible under G.S. 15A-1331.2 through a 12-month PJC with a 12-month continuance. Slip op. at 13, n.5. It’s possible that the court would reach a different result in case where sentencing was delayed for more than 24 months. Parties may wish to keep that in mind as they negotiate arrangements for cooperation in serious cases that might take more than two years to resolve.

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