Ongoing research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in domestic violence cases across the globe—and Pennsylvania has been no exception. The quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and limited courtroom hours have added some confusion to the domestic violence issue in several ways. First, experts fear many incidents are going unreported, either because the alleged victim feels unable to reach out or because they are unsure what resources are available to them in the pandemic. Second, those who are accused of domestic violence are uncertain about what legal recourse they have at this time.
The Lento Law Firm has compiled the following information to help people dealing with domestic violence charges to better understand how these cases are handled in Pennsylvania, and specifically how COVID-19 has affected how cases are processed, so you know what to expect and how to prepare.
Is Domestic Violence a Criminal or Civil Matter?
In essence, it is treated as both. Pennsylvania does not recognize domestic violence as a separate crime but rather classifies it as domestic violence when someone commits a crime (e.g., assault, battery, false imprisonment, sexual abuse) against a spouse, partner, or member of their household. Thus, allegations of domestic violence can translate into multiple criminal charges related to the incident.
However, even if you are not ultimately charged with a domestic violence crime, the alleged victim has recourse to file certain civil actions against you. For example, he or she could ask the court for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order—a type of restraining order that forbids you from making contact with that person. If you violate the PFA, that constitutes an additional crime for which you could be arrested and charged. An alleged victim might also use the domestic violence allegations to reduce or revoke your custody/visitation rights for your children.
If My Spouse or Partner Calls the Police, will I Be Arrested and Charged for Suspected Domestic Violence?
It depends on what the police discover when they arrive. The police need to find “probable cause” in order to make an arrest. Examples of probable cause may include:
- Witnessing an altercation firsthand in which they see a crime being committed
- Seeing physical evidence of injury on the alleged victim
- Obtaining corroborating evidence of domestic violence, like witness testimony
- Running a check and seeing that you are in contact with the alleged victim in violation of a previous PFA
Any or all of these examples may be considered probable cause, at which point the police would make an arrest, and charges would likely follow accordingly. If you believe the police did not follow proper procedure or arrested you without probable cause, talk to an experienced domestic violence defense attorney immediately.
What Should I Do if I am Arrested for Domestic Violence?
From the moment of your arrest, your actions and words can have a direct effect on the outcome of your case—so consider your responses very carefully. The best way to protect your interests is to do the following:
- Do not continue to be combative, either with the alleged victim or with the police. Any combativeness may further reinforce the notion of your guilt.
- Do not make a statement to the police without an attorney present. You are not legally required to answer any questions, even if the police act persistent or aggressive. “Anything you say can and will be used against you.”
- Contact a reputable defense attorney as soon as possible. The sooner the attorney gets involved, the better your chances for a successful defense of the charges.
How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the Way My Case Is Processed?
Now several months into the pandemic, the Pennsylvania courts have adapted to the point that cases can proceed almost normally. Depending on the county, some hearings may be held virtually via videoconference, while others may be held in person with proper precautions. The Lento Law Firm can handle both virtual and in-person court appearances seamlessly.
I am Concerned About COVID-19, and I am Considered a High-Risk Person. Will I Have to Stay in Jail until My Trial?
Jails and prisons have presented an ongoing issue with COVID-19 transmission nationwide. They typically take all the precautions they can, but some facilities simply don't have the ability to create social distancing between prisoners. Fortunately, depending on the circumstances surrounding your case, a good attorney may be able to negotiate a manageable or unsecured bail to limit your time in jail, and being at increased risk for COVID complications may be an important negotiation point. Be sure to talk to your attorney about your concerns and discuss your options.
How Can an Experienced Defense Attorney Help with My Domestic Violence Case?
Having the right attorney can make a huge difference in the outcome of your case. A defense attorney who is experienced in domestic violence cases can help you in the following ways:
- Conduct an investigation to obtain the full details of the alleged incident
- Identify mitigating circumstances that may bolster your defense (e.g., circumstantial evidence (or lack thereof), conflicting versions of the story, inappropriate police conduct, etc.
- Advise you of what your options are, along with the potential outcomes
- Negotiate for reduced charges and/or dismissal of charges
- Work on your behalf to limit or remove unfair PFAs or custody limitations
- Ensure your rights are protected before, during, and after the trial (if it goes to trial)
- Defend you vigorously in court if the case makes it to trial (many don't)
- Provide sound advice on any plea deals
- Help you with the appeals process, if necessary
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended hundreds of people accused of domestic violence in Pennsylvania. If you've been arrested or charged with a domestic violence-related crime, call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to see how we can help.