If you promise not to sin again, North Carolina will let you off the hook.
The Tarheel State allows motorists who have violated some traffic and other laws to invoke what is officially known as a Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC). But it is far from a free pass, and the decision to seek one has a considerable element of strategy to it.
Even longtime residents of the state are often confused about how the PJC works.
A PJC allows a finding of guilt but suspends entry of the conviction into the record books. The driver is expected to keep a clean record during a probationary period, typically three years. At that time, the conviction is expunged and all is forgotten.
But if the driver reoffends, he faces penalties not only for the new ticket but the old one as well.
What a PJC is not
A PJC is a sentence, not a plea. Attorney John Szymankiewicz of Raleigh said it is not unusual for a motorist to ask the court for a PJC. The accused are often surprised when the judge halts the proceedings and asks if that means the motorist is pleading guilty. Sometimes, the judge has to engage a defense attorney to explain the process to the motorist. The reason, of course, is that the judges and prosecutors are not allowed to offer such advice to a defendant.
A PJC is not a dismissal. Remember, a PJC is requested after a conviction and you "pray" for the court to "continue your judgment" -- in other words, suspend the decision on a sentence. Think of it as asking the court for leniency in return for your promise not to violate that or other laws.
A PJC request is not guaranteed. If you and your attorney decide to request a PJC, the judge is not obligated to grant it. Don't forget, you have already entered a guilty plea.
A PJC doesn't mean you don't pay. The defendant still pays court costs even when a PJC is granted. The judge may even impose a small fine. The key is that, if granted, a PJC prevents the infraction from counting against your driver's license or insurance points.
A PJC does not mean you can't face charges. If you receive a PJC, your violation is not completely forgiven. If within three years you commit another violation, expect the court to revoke the PJC. You will then face the original charge plus the most recent charges -- and all the points, fines and fees that come with those charges.
Who is eligible for a PJC?
Drunken drivers are not eligible. A PJC is not available if you've been convicted of driving while intoxicated.
Lead-footed speeders aren't eligible. A PJC is not available if you're charged with driving 25 mph or more above the speed limit.
Frequent speeders aren't eligible. The state has two different point systems, each with different rules on PJCs. The first system is driver's license points. A driver can have two PJCs on his or her motor vehicle record in a five-year period. In North Carolina, there is also a point system for insurance that selectively raises the rates for some offenses. A PJC can be used once every three years per insurance policy.
Only one person per policy is eligible. If your husband, sister, brother or anyone else on your insurance policy used a PJC in the last three years, you are ineligible.
When to use your PJC
Motorists would be wise to ask if the violation with which they are charged will result in points on their licenses or insurance points. For example, those convicted of driving with improper plates face no points; a PJC would be wasted.
Think of the PJC as insurance for worst-case scenarios, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner.
"If I had a teenage driver on my policy, I'd keep the PJC in my back pocket just in case," she says. "Their base rates will be higher, so the surcharge would be that much bigger."
In any case, first asking for a reduction in the charge to a non-moving violation is always a good idea, attorneys say. It doesn't hurt to ask, and it may save your PJC for another day.
Whenever you're working with the court, it's important to fully understand your options. Some defendants, in an effort to put a violation behind them, simply pay the fine or hire a lawyer to make the charge simply go away.
But a guilty plea means court costs, a fine, points against your license or insurance policy, and possibly higher insurance rates. And hiring a lawyer without asking questions about their strategy could come back to haunt you.
Szymankiewicz tells a story about receiving a speeding ticket in the years before he became an attorney.
"I paid a lawyer to represent me and I never heard back from him," he said. "Then I found out he used a PJC. I would have liked to have known that he was doing that. One thing readers should remember is that even if they hire attorneys, they need to make sure they understand how the attorneys are representing them."