Across Pennsylvania in 2018, there were approximately 123 fatalities that resulted from altercations related to domestic violence. The majority of these incidents involve family members or those in some dating or intimate relationships. Federal and state lawmakers have recently added additional provisions to further increase the severity of penalties that may be imposed on perpetrators, such as by prohibiting these individuals from owning or possessing a firearm. If you have been charged with a crime related to domestic violence, it is critical to promptly speak with an experienced attorney that will represent you.
What Constitutes a Crime of Domestic Violence?
Under Pennsylvania law, acts of domestic violence are those that involve members of a family, household, partners to a sexual or intimate relationship, or those who are parents to a child. These are acts of violence that are committed with intent or are reckless acts that result in harm or severe injury including sexual assault, coerced intercourse, and may involve a deadly weapon. Victims of domestic violence may experience a situation where they fear for their safety, such as when being “stalked” by someone. Acts of physical or sexual abuse of a minor are also acts of domestic violence.
Unlike in many other jurisdictions, Pennsylvania does not have a specific criminal charge that applies to domestic violence. Based on the circumstances involved, the charges may include misdemeanors or felonies such as aggravated assault, battery, rape, kidnapping, strangulation, etc.
Federal Gun Control Act
Federal lawmakers implemented the 1968 Gun Control Act that prohibited those with a felony conviction and individuals named in a court protection order for acts related to domestic violence from having possession of a firearm. In 1996, a measure sometimes referred to as the “Lautenberg Amendment” was added that extended this firearm law to cover individuals convicted of misdemeanor-level crimes of domestic violence. The stated intent was to enhance public safety by no longer allowing those who have a history of violence towards their loved ones to possess deadly weapons. Three aspects that benefit law enforcement were emphasized as follows:
- Those who have committed acts considered to be domestic violence should be prevented from accessing a firearm
- It allows members of law enforcement to reduce the potential for fatalities by removing firearms from homes where domestic violence has occurred
- The measure affords federal prosecutors with an additional tool that is available when other options were proven to be unsuccessful
Federal Definition of Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence (MCDV)
What qualifies as an MCDV? Federal guidelines explain that these are offenses involving attempts, threats, or acts involving the use of force or lethal weapons by a “current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.” This also applies to those who are parents of a child, those cohabitating, or similar relationships. The provisions apply to any acts of violence involving the previously mentioned parties regardless of whether the crime is charged as specifically a “domestic violence” crime.
Pennsylvania's Firearm Safety Provisions
In recent years, additional provisions were added to state laws in Pennsylvania related to firearms and domestic violence. A law was added that required all Protection From Abuse (PFA) orders implemented by a judge to require that any weapons possessed be relinquished. Those who are the subject of a PFA requiring them to relinquish weapons must give the property to an agency of law enforcement, commercial armory, or attorney that he or she has an existing relationship with. Before this change, friends or acquaintances were eligible to store relinquished firearms.
Individuals required to relinquish weapons for misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence must do so within 24 hours, a significant reduction from the existing 60-day requirement. Anyone who fails to relinquish weapons may be charged with a second-degree criminal offense and may be prohibited from possessing a firearm for five years. Defendants are eligible for having relinquished firearms returned if a PFA is dismissed or expires.
Firearms and Temporary PFA Orders
Judges may order an individual that is subject to a temporary PFA to surrender their weapons. This decision is based on the court's discretion when a weapon was involved in the incident of alleged abuse or if the judge believes that an “immediate and present danger of abuse exists.”
This determination is influenced by a host of potential factors including history of violating a court order, the severity of any injuries resulting from abuse, concerns regarding suicide, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, and others.
PFA Registry and Firearms
The Pennsylvania State Police is responsible for maintaining a centralized database of all temporary and final PFAs. Any court-orders that require an individual to surrender their weapons are also documented in the registry.
Importance of Promptly Retaining a Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Lawyer
Those who are arrested and charged following incidents of alleged domestic violence should speak with a defense attorney as soon as possible. This timing is critical, as the court is likely to take actions that include implementing a protection order and establishing the details for your release from custody. An experienced attorney will help reduce uncertainties and begin acting according to your best interests.
Those accused of domestic violence often encounter a stigma that commonly exists that can harm your personal and professional reputation. In today's interconnected digital landscape, information about an arrest may be exposed on the internet and be rapidly circulated through word-of-mouth and social media. Individuals that are convicted of violent offenses should expect to potentially face harsh penalties such as incarceration and large fines. Having a criminal record also can pose long-term problems when seeking employment, leasing an apartment, and other times when subjected to background screening.
Seasoned Defense Attorney Effectively Represents Clients in Domestic Violence Cases
Federal and state agencies of law enforcement and prosecutors take allegations of domestic violence very seriously. In some venues, court officials are overwhelmed with cases and may be inclined to act haphazardly without thoroughly reviewing all the evidence and circumstances involved. Joseph D. Lento has spent many years representing clients in criminal matters and will aggressively protect your legal rights. Contact the office today at (888) 535-3686.