Key Concepts

  • A prayer for judgment continued (or “PJC”) can be used to postpone the sentencing hearing to a date certain or as an alternative to entering a traditional judgment in the case.
  • If the court imposes sanctions or penalties along with the PJC, it will be deemed a final judgment in the case and no further sentencing will be allowed.
  • PJCs count as “convictions” for purposes of Rule 609 impeachment and scoring criminal history, but they are not a “final judgment” from which the defendant may appeal.

Overview and Types

After a conviction, the trial court may: (1) pronounce judgment and place it into immediate execution; (2) pronounce judgment but suspend or stay its execution; or (3) continue prayer for judgment (commonly known as a “PJC”). State v. Thompson, 267 N.C. 653 (1966). The term “PJC” is somewhat confusing because it can be used to describe three very different scenarios:

  1. Dispositional
    This is the most common type of PJC. It is entered for a criminal offense or infraction in a case in which no further sentencing is contemplated. See State v. Lea, 156 N.C. App. 178 (2003). The defendant’s consent is not required to impose this type of PJC, unless the PJC has “conditions” (as discussed below). See State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957). There is no special AOC form that has to be used; the judge simply announces the PJC in open court.
Practice Pointer

The “everyday PJC”
This first type of PJC is commonly used in cases involving minor offenses such as traffic infractions. Entry of a PJC in such circumstances may enable the defendant to avoid DMV or insurance points. As discussed in more detail in Section E. below, this PJC still counts as a “conviction” for purposes of calculating the defendant’s criminal record, but enables the defendant to avoid some of the other direct and collateral consequences of a conviction, such as probation or license revocation.

  1. Continuance
    A PJC may also be entered when the judge wants to continue, until some future date, the sentencing of a defendant who has pled guilty or been found guilty at trial because: (i) the judge wants additional information about the defendant before sentencing; (ii) the defendant will be testifying against codefendants and sentencing is delayed until that trial ends; or (iii) the defendant fled during or after trial and will not be sentenced until he or she can be returned to court. See, e.g., State v. Bass, 303 N.C. 267 (1981) ("Prayer for judgment was continued until such time as he could be apprehended and brought before the presiding judge of Durham Superior Court for sentencing. This was accomplished almost a year later.").
  2. Term to Term
    A less common type of PJC is entered after a guilty plea for a criminal offense (usually in superior court) and the judgment provides that prayer for judgment is being entered “from term to term” for a specified period. The state may seek sentencing for this offense by “praying for judgment” at any time within that time period. The state typically prays judgment only if the defendant commits a new criminal offense or engages in some other type of misbehavior. See, e.g., State v. Thompson, 267 N.C. 653 (1966).
Practice Pointer

How are #1 and #3 different?
The first type of PJC is intended from the date of imposition to be the final sentence, meaning there is no expectation that any further punishment will ever be imposed. The third type of PJC is more analogous to a deferral or conditional discharge agreement – there will be no further punishment if the defendant does not commit any new criminal offenses for the specified period; but if he or she does commit a new offense, then the state may pray judgment and ask the court to impose a punishment for the original conviction.

When is a PJC a Final Judgment?

If conditions, requirements, or sanctions are imposed along with the PJC, then the PJC will probably be deemed a final judgment, and the court will not be permitted to enter a new sentence at a later date. There are limited exceptions for a few minor conditions which are not sufficiently punitive to convert the PJC into a final judgment.

  1. Conditions Allowed Under a PJC
    1. Court costs
      A PJC is not a final judgment when only court costs are imposed. G.S. 15A-101(4a) provides that a prayer for judgment continued on payment of court costs, “without more,” does not constitute the entry of judgment. As long as the court, when entering a PJC, does not impose any other conditions that constitutes punishment such as a fine, imprisonment, or restitution (see below), the PJC is not a final judgment. See State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957); State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993).
    2. “Obey the law”
      A PJC is not a final judgment merely because a condition is imposed ordering the defendant to “obey the law.” See State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993); State v. Cheek, 31 N.C. App. 379 (1976); Florence v. Hiatt, 101 N.C. App. 539 (1991).
    3. “Not associate with”
      It may also be permissible for the court to order the defendant “not to contact, communicate with, or be on the property of a specified person” without converting the PJC into a final judgment. See Walters v. Cooper, 226 N.C. App. 166, aff’d per curiam, 367 N.C. 117 (2013); State v. Lynch, 337 N.C. 415 (1994).
  2. Conditions That Convert a PJC into a Final Judgment
    1. Fine or Imprisonment
      Imposition of a fine or imprisonment along with a PJC constitutes a final judgment (note: restitution would likely also be treated the same). See State v. Griffin, 246 N.C. 680 (1957); State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993).
    2. Psychiatric Treatment
      A PJC that requires the defendant to continue psychiatric treatment constitutes a final judgment. See State v. Brown, 110 N.C. App. 658 (1993).
    3. Conduct/Compliance
      Any other condition or directive that requires the defendant to do a particular act or conform to certain requirements constitutes a "punishment" and renders the PJC a final judgment. Examples include: (i) abide by a curfew; (ii) complete high school; (iii) enroll in institution of higher education; (iv) join the armed forces; (v) cooperate with random drug testing; (vi) perform community service; (vii) remain employed; or (viii) write a letter of apology. See State v. Popp, 197 N.C. App. 226 (2009).

Imposing Judgment at a Later Date

As noted above, most PJCs are intended to serve either as the final disposition in the case, or as a legal mechanism to avoid imposing a judgment. But in cases where entry of judgment is merely being delayed for a set period of time or until the state elects to pray judgment, the court is generally permitted to later impose a final judgment.

  1. Reasonable Delay
    After a guilty or no contest plea has been entered or a jury’s guilty verdict has been returned, prayer for judgment may be continued for sentencing for a “reasonable time.” Reasonableness depends on the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, whether the defendant consented to it, and any prejudice caused to the defendant. See State v. Degree, 110 N.C. App. 638 (1993). A PJC from term to term for up to five years, or until a specific date or event (such as the end of another trial), has also been held reasonable (but see limitation for Class B1 – E felonies, below). See State v. Lea, 156 N.C. App. 178 (2003). A defendant’s failure to request that a sentence be imposed on the last day of the term specified in the PJC will be treated as consent to a continuance of the PJC. See State v. Watkins, 229 N.C. App. 628 (2013).
  2. Sentencing by a Different Judge
    A sentence may be imposed by a different judge at a later date even though he or she was not involved in the earlier plea hearing or trial. State v. Sauls, 291 N.C. 253 (1976).
  3. Sentencing After Specified Date
    When prayer for judgment is continued for sentencing until a certain date, but the sentencing hearing is not held on that date, the court does not lose jurisdiction to impose a sentence at a later date, unless the delay was unreasonable or the defendant was prejudiced by the delay. State v. Absher, 335 N.C. 155 (1993); State v. Degree, 110 N.C. App. 638 (1993); State v. Craven, 205 N.C. App. 393 (2010) (because defendant never requested sentencing, he consented to continuation of sentencing and two-year delay was not unreasonable), new trial ordered on other grounds, 367 N.C. 51 (2013).
  4. State Praying Judgment after Reversal/Dismissal of Other Convictions
    When a defendant is convicted of multiple offenses and the court imposes a sentence on some offenses but enters a PJC on the rest, the state is not prohibited from praying judgment on the PJC offenses at a later date if the sentenced offenses are reversed on appeal or remanded for entry of judgment on a lesser offense. See State v. Van Trusell, 170 N.C. App. 33 (2005); State v. Lea, 156 N.C. App. 178 (2003).

When a PJC is Not Allowed (or Restricted)

North Carolina’s appellate courts have said that PJCs are not permissible when sentencing is “mandatory.” Given that every criminal offense must be sentenced in accordance with the governing statutory scheme, such a rule, if applied literally, would prohibit PJCs in every case.  But that is not how courts have applied the rule.  Instead, the courts have delineated particular types of offenses for which PJCs may not be granted.  In addition, the legislature has, by statute, prohibited PJCs for certain offenses. See In re Tucker, 348 N.C. 677 (1998); In re Greene, 297 N.C. 305 (1979). Therefore, PJCs are not permitted in the following situations:

  1. DWI
    A PJC is not allowed for DWI or other impaired driving offenses requiring mandatory punishment under G.S. 20-179. See In re Tucker, 348 N.C. 677 (1998); In re Greene, 297 N.C. 305 (1979).
  2. Certain Chapter 20 offenses
    A PJC is statutorily prohibited for a "charge" of speeding more than 25 mph over the posted speed limit. See G.S. 20-141(p). A PJC for passing stopped school bus is likewise prohibited. G.S. 20-217(a), (e).
Practice Pointer

As charged, or as convicted?
If the defendant was originally charged with speeding more than 25 m.p.h. over the limit, but negotiated a plea down to something below that limit (e.g., charged with driving 81 mph in a 55 mph zone, but pleads guilty to driving 70 mph in a 55 mph zone), then the court is probably allowed to grant a PJC, because the negotiated (lesser) charge is the one actually being presented to the judge for sentencing. See Shea Denning, "Charges? What Charges?,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog, April 9, 2009; and Jamie Markham, Limits on PJCs,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog, May 31, 2018.

  1. Limitation on Class B1, B2, C, D, or E felony
    If the trial court orders a PJC for a Class B1, B2, C, D, or E felony, the court must order the state to pray judgment within a specified time not to exceed 12 months. The court must then enter a final judgment unless it finds it is in the interest of justice to continue the PJC. If court continues the PJC, the order must be continued for specific period not to exceed one additional period of 12 months. The court may not continue PJC for more than one additional 12-month period. G.S. 15A-1331.2. However, failure to comply with the statutory directive to enter judgment within 12 months does not inherently deprive the court of jurisdiction to enter judgment in the case at a later date. See State v. Marino, 265 N.C. App. 546 (2019) ("...we hold that noncompliance with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1331.2 does not automatically divest the trial court of jurisdiction to enter a final judgment. [...] Rather, whether the trial court retained jurisdiction must be assessed using the standards set out in Absher and Degree").
  2. Third Chapter 20 conviction
    A PJC is not statutorily prohibited, but it will have limited effect. The first and second PJCs within a five-year period are not considered “final convictions” under Chapter 20, and thus do not result in DMV driver’s license points or revocations. However, a third or subsequent PJC for a Chapter 20 offense within any five-year period will be deemed a “conviction” pursuant to G.S. 20-4.01(4a)(a)(4).

Consequences and Effects of a PJC

  1. Impeachment Under Rule 609
    When a PJC is entered after a knowing and voluntary guilty plea, it is a “conviction” under Rule 609 and therefore impeachment with that conviction is allowed. See State v. Sidberry, 337 N.C. 779 (1994) (“trial court did not err in ruling that the State could cross-examine defendant regarding these prior guilty pleas if defendant chose to testify,” despite the fact that defendant had received PJCs on those offenses); State v. Bradley, 175 N.C. App. 234 (2005) (“formal entry of judgment is not required in order to have a conviction”); State v. Hasty, 133 N.C. App. 563 (1999). But see State v. Lynch, 337 N.C. 415 (1994) (affirming trial court's refusal to allow impeachment with a prior conviction where testifying witness had pled not guilty, and court record did not clearly indicate a finding of guilt, but only showed that a PJC had been entered: "The court held that the court record did not show a verdict had been entered and would not allow the defendant to use it to impeach the witness.").
  2. Scoring for Prior Record/History Points
    A PJC is considered a conviction under Structured Sentencing Act, and is scored for points just like any other conviction for purposes of calculating the defendant’s prior record level. See State v. Canellas, 164 N.C. App. 775 (2004); State v. Graham, 149 N.C. App. 215 (2002); State v. Hatcher, 136 N.C. App. 524 (2000).
  3. Right to Appeal
    Because a PJC is not a “final judgment,” the defendant may not appeal from a district court PJC for trial de novo in superior court, nor may the defendant appeal from a PJC in superior court to the appellate courts. See State v. Perry, 316 N.C. 87 (1986); Barbour v. Scheidt, 246 N.C. 169 (1957); State v. Pledger, 257 N.C. 634 (1962); State v. Broom, 225 N.C. App. 137 (2013). If a defendant wants to appeal, he or she would need to first ask the trial court to set aside the PJC and enter a final judgment.
Practice Pointer

So is a PJC a “final” conviction and judgment... or not?
It depends. For purposes of Rule 609 impeachment or scoring prior records points? Yes. For the purpose of having a right to appeal? No.
Conflicting interpretations regarding the nature of PJCs can be found in other contexts, as well. For example, a PJC does count as a conviction that would exclude a “convicted felon” from buying a handgun, see Friend v. State, 169 N.C. App. 99 (2005), but it does not count as a "final conviction" that would obligate a convicted sex offender to register, see Walters v. Cooper, 226 N.C. App. 166, aff’d per curiam, 367 N.C. 117 (2013). Therefore, to determine if or how a PJC may implicate the various other collateral consequences that can arise from a conviction (such as voting rights, immigration, licensing, or benefits eligibility), attorneys should consult any applicable case law and carefully analyze how the relevant statute defines “conviction.”

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2016-2017 North Carolina Sentencing Handbook, by James M. Markham and Shea Riggsbee Denning, and the North Carolina Superior Court Judges’ Benchbook,“Prayer for Judgment Continued,” Dec. 2013, Jessica Smith.