State v. McDonald, COA22-672, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Aug. 1, 2023)

In this Robeson County case, defendant appealed his conviction for misdemeanor death by vehicle, arguing error as (1) the prayer for judgment continued (PJC) was intended to be a final judgment in the matter, and (2) the almost seven-year delay in entering judgment was unreasonable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment. 

In October of 2011, defendant crossed the center line of a roadway when attempting to turn left, causing a collision with a motorcyclist who died of injuries sustained in the collision. Defendant pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by vehicle in October of 2014. Defendant’s plea agreement required him to plead guilty and acknowledge responsibility in open court, and stated the trial court would then enter a prayer for judgment in the matter. In August of 2020, defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter due to another motor vehicle accident, and the State moved to pray judgment in the misdemeanor death by vehicle case. Over defendant’s opposition, the trial court granted the State’s motion and entered a judgment imposing a sentence of imprisonment that was suspended for supervised probation.  

Considering issue (1), the Court of Appeals noted that applicable precedent has made a distinction between PJCs that impose conditions “amounting to punishment” versus PJCs that do not. Slip Op. at 5. Conditions amounting to punishment include fines and imprisonment terms, whereas orders such as requiring defendant to obey the law or pay court costs do not represent punishment for this distinction. Here the court found no conditions amounting to punishment and rejected defendant’s argument that the trial court’s statement “that he hoped ‘both sides can have some peace and resolution in the matter’” represented an intention for the judgment to be final. Id. at 7. 

Turning to (2), the court noted that a sentence from a PJC must be entered “within a reasonable time” after the conviction, and looked to State v. Marino, 265 N.C. App. 546 (2019) for the considerations applicable to determining whether the sentence was entered in a reasonable time. Slip Op at 8-9. Here, the court noted the circumstances supported a finding of reasonableness, as (1) the State delayed its motion to pray judgment until defendant committed a second motor vehicle offense, (2) defendant tacitly consented to the delay by not objecting to the PJC and not asking for judgment to be entered, and (3) defendant could not show actual prejudice by the delay of entering a sentence. 

Judge Riggs dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the delay divested the trial court of jurisdiction to enter the sentence.