Domestic violence is a serious matter. An abusive relationship is a dangerous situation for both parties as well as any children in the household. As a result, Pennsylvania offers a protection from abuse (PFA) order for those in a qualifying domestic relationship that is abusive. However, if the court has recently served you with a PFA order, it can be frightening, and you may not know where to turn. Your best option is to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
What is a Protection from Abuse Order?
A protection from abuse (PFA) order is a restraining order or protective order issued under Pennsylvania's 1990 Protection from Abuse Act. See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6101, et seq. (2018). The court can issue protective orders for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. However, the most common PFA orders in Pennsylvania are those issued for domestic violence. A PFA can be either temporary, lasting about ten days, or final, lasting up to three years.
The first place that a judge may dismiss a PFA is in the initial hearing for a temporary PFA. The temporary PFA hearing is an ex parte hearing that is the first step after the plaintiff files a PFA complaint. Only the plaintiff is present at an ex parte hearing, and the defendant does not have a right to notice of the hearing and may not appear and present evidence.
In the temporary PFA hearing, the judge will only issue the temporary order if they believe that the applicant or their children are in imminent danger from continuing abuse. The standard at a temporary PFA hearing is a very low bar. The judge will look at the facts as alleged in the complaint and assume that they are true. If the complaint follows the PFA statute's requirements closely enough, the judge will grant the temporary PFA.
A temporary PFA will only remain in place for about ten days or until the final PFA hearing. You must appear at the final PFA hearing because it is the most likely place to get the PFA order dismissed. While you aren't required to have an attorney, your best chance of success will be with a skilled Pennsylvania litigator experienced in defending against PFA orders and criminal domestic violence actions. If the judge issues a final PFA in your absence, it may remain in place for up to three years.
Final Protection from Abuse Hearing
The most likely place to have a PFA order dismissed is at the final PFA hearing. At the hearing, you and the plaintiff will have the chance to appear and tell your side of the story. You can both present evidence and witnesses to the court and cross-examine the other side's witnesses.
At the hearing, the plaintiff will need to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the two of you have a qualifying domestic relationship and an act of abuse occurred.
Qualifying Domestic Relationship
A qualifying domestic relationship under the PFA Act can include:
- Current or former spouses or intimate partners,
- Current or former dating partners,
- Parent and child,
- A family member by blood or by marriage,
- Same-sex couples, and
- Those with a child together.
Relationships such as co-workers, neighbors, fellow students, or strangers do not qualify for domestic violence PFA orders. If your relationship with the plaintiff doesn't meet one of the above qualifying categories, the judge will dismiss the PFA.
An Act of Abuse Occurred
The plaintiff must also show that an act of abuse occurred. The PFA Act defines abuse broadly:
(1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon; (2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury; (3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2903; (4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63; and (5) knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under the circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. (23 Pa. Stat. §6102)
Many crimes can qualify as abuse or domestic violence, including causing, or attempting to cause, any of the following, with or without a deadly weapon:
- Bodily injury,
- Serious bodily injury,
- Sexual assault,
- Physical or sexual abuse of a minor,
- Statutory sexual assault,
- Indecent assault,
- False imprisonment,
- Putting another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury, and
- Engaging in a “repeated course of conduct that puts someone in reasonable fear of bodily injury.”
At the hearing, the plaintiff may try to show that abuse occurred through:
- Your criminal conviction of domestic violence,
- Medical records, x-rays, and photographs,
- Eyewitness testimony and other written evidence, or
- Through the testimony of friends and relatives.
If you haven't been convicted of a qualifying crime of domestic violence, or if the plaintiff doesn't have objective medical records and documentation, it will be harder for them to prove that abuse happened. If the plaintiff can't show both: (1) abuse and (2) a qualifying relationship by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it more likely than not occurred, then the judge will dismiss the PFA.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney
If you are facing a final PFA hearing and want the best possible chance of success and dismissal of the order, you need skilled legal guidance. While you don't have to have an attorney for a PFA hearing, the hearing will follow the rules of evidence and the rules of the court. That's why your best chance of success is to hire an attorney skilled in handling protection from abuse orders. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience defending Pennsylvania clients from PFAs, domestic violence charges, and other crimes. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online. Attorney Lento can help you too.