With three words—PER CURIAM. AFFIRMED.—the Supreme Court of North Carolina last week added a new wrinkle to two already perplexing areas of the law: sex offender registration and PJCs. In Walters v. Cooper, the high court affirmed the court of appeals’ conclusion that a conviction for which a person receives a prayer for judgment continued (PJC) does not require registration as a sex offender.
The details of the case are set out in this prior post, but I will recap them briefly here. Paul Walters received a PJC for his 2006 conviction of misdemeanor sexual battery. He did not register at that time, but was later required to register. He sought declaratory relief in superior court, arguing that a PJC was not a “final conviction” within the meaning of G.S. 14-208.6(4). The trial judge rejected that argument and required him to continue registering. Over a dissent, the court of appeals reversed, concluding that a “true PJC” like the one received by Mr. Walters was not a final conviction for sex offender registration purposes.
The supreme court affirmed, adopting the view of the court of appeals majority that the legislature’s use of the word “final” before “conviction” in G.S. 14-208.6(4) was intended to exclude convictions followed by a PJC. With that interpretation in place, sex offender registration stands as an exception to the general rule that a PJC is the functional equivalent of a conviction for virtually all subsequent purposes, including:
- Prior record points. State v. Hatcher, 136 N.C. App. 524 (2000); State v. Canellas, 164 N.C. App. 775 (2004).
- Evidence Rule 609. State v. Sidberry, 337 N.C. 779 (1994) (holding that a PJC entered after a guilty plea counts as a conviction for Rule 609 impeachment purposes).
- Prohibition on handgun permits for felons. Friend v. State, 169 N.C. App. 99 (2005).
Courts generally come to that conclusion on the theory that the underlying determination of guilt, not the judgment, is the conviction.
The supreme court declined to adopt the thinking of Judge Steelman’s court of appeals dissent. In it, the judge reasoned that whether a PJC is a “final conviction” for sex offender registration purposes was beside the point in Mr. Walters’ case, because he didn’t receive a true PJC. Recall that a PJC is converted into a judgment when it includes conditions that amount to punishment—which certainly includes conditions like imprisonment or a fine, State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993), but has also been deemed to include lesser things like a curfew or a requirement to write a letter of apology, State v. Popp, 197 N.C. App. 226 (2009).
Judge Steelman would have concluded that the condition on Mr. Walters’ PJC that he “not have any contact with, communicate with, in any shape, form, or fashion, the victim, [and] not be on her property or contact any member of her immediate family” was a sufficient enough limitation on Walters’ rights of association and movement to convert the purported PJC into a final judgment. The State noted the “conditions amounting to punishment” issue as an alternative argument in its appellate brief, but did not cite to Popp. Previously I would have said in light of Popp that about the only conditions that do not convert a PJC into a judgment are a requirement to pay costs, G.S. 15A-101(4a), and a requirement to obey the law, Brown, 110 N.C. App. at 659. The supreme court’s affirmance of Walters has me wondering if the case can be viewed as setting a slightly higher floor for what constitutes a non-punitive condition.