Being served with a protection order in Pennsylvania can be stressful and emotionally taxing. A Protection From Abuse order, known in Pennsylvania as a PFA or PFA order, can upend your life. You may have to leave your home, stop seeing your children, or even avoid your workplace—all at a moment's notice.
Dealing with a PFA isn't easy, particularly if you've been falsely accused of abuse. A PFA defense attorney can help you through this process by letting you know what your rights and restrictions are, how to prepare yourself for your PFA hearing, and how to conduct yourself while you are subject to a protection order.
This Pennsylvania PFA survival guide will provide advice and tips for defendants dealing with a PFA. The guide will cover:
- The basics of a PFA
- What to do when you're served a PFA
- What to do in the days before your hearing
- What to do during your hearing
- What to do after your hearing
This PFA survival guide from Lento Law Firm will be an invaluable resource for you when handling a PFA as a defendant.
PFA: The Basics
Who's the defendant and the plaintiff?
When someone goes to a courthouse and files a PFA in Pennsylvania, they become the plaintiff. A plaintiff can file a PFA alleging that you've abused them or their family. When the plaintiff puts your name on the paperwork, you become the defendant. When the plaintiff files for a PFA, it's ex parte, meaning that you, the defendant, do not have to be present for the judge to grant the temporary PFA.
Is a PFA civil or criminal?
A PFA alone is a civil matter. When you go to your PFA hearing, it will not be in criminal court. However, you may have domestic violence charges against you in addition to your PFA, and domestic violence is a crime.
Although the PFA itself is not under criminal jurisdiction, you can be arrested if you violate the terms of your PFA. You can also be charged with indirect criminal contempt.
What restrictions can you face with a PFA?
Each PFA order is different and will depend on the plaintiff's and defendant's situation. In general, a temporary PFA can order you to:
- Restrain from further acts of abuse
- Leave your home, if you cohabitate with the plaintiff
- Prevent you from going to the plaintiff's home, school, business, or place of work
- Give temporary custody of your children over to the plaintiff, if you previously had custody
- Pay alimony or child custody payments if you have a legal obligation to do so
Who can order a PFA against you?
Only an adult who is a member of your family or household can file a temporary PFA against you. Under the Pennsylvania Protection From Abuse Act, a “family or household member” is one of the following:
- Common-law spouse
- Your parent, your non-minor child, or anyone related to you by blood
- An in-law or anyone related to you by marriage
- A current or former intimate partner
- Someone you share biological parenthood of a child over (the father or mother of your child)
Types of PFA orders in Pennsylvania
There are three types of general PFA orders issued in Pennsylvania. These are:
- Ex Parte Temporary PFA: A plaintiff files for a temporary protection order based on a preponderance of the evidence (the defendant doesn't have to be present for the judge to sign the order). This type of PFA lasts 10 days, or until a formal hearing date is set.
- Emergency PFA: A plaintiff can seek a PFA on nights or weekends, when the courthouse isn't open, from an on-call magisterial district judge if the plaintiff is in immediate danger. This type of PFA order expires the next business day when the plaintiff will have to apply for a regular, ex parte temporary PFA to replace it.
- Final PFA: After a formal hearing, a judge may issue a final PFA against the defendant lasting up to three years. But the plaintiff can extend this time period, making the PFA last 10 years or more.
Penalties for violating a PFA order
If you violate a PFA order, you could be arrested and face harsh penalties, such as:
- Fine up to $1000
- Up to six months in jail
- Extension of the PFA
- Confiscation of weapons, firearms, or ammunition used or threatened to be used in violation of the PFA
PFA orders involving children
A plaintiff can name a child in their PFA, and the defendant would have to stay away from this child, surrender custody of the child if they had it previously, or be ordered to pay child support expenses. If the restrictions of a PFA include not seeing your child, then you may not see them under any circumstance, and doing so will violate your PFA.
What to Do When You're Served a PFA
After the plaintiff has filed a PFA against you, either the local county sheriff or a police officer will likely serve it to you. In many counties in Pennsylvania, the plaintiff or any other adult has the authority to serve it as well, but it will most likely be a law enforcement official. As soon as you receive the PFA, keep the following tips in mind and follow them as closely as possible.
Don't fight the person serving it
Do not become aggressive or violent against the person serving you the PFA, no matter who it is. As soon as you're presented with that paperwork, the court can use any actions you take against you in your hearing. If you want to prove you have good character to the judge at your hearing, remain respectful and quiet when receiving your PFA order.
Read it immediately
It's vital that you understand the terms of your PFA, so you can comply as quickly as possible. If the order says you're not supposed to be near the plaintiff, and you share a home with them, then you need to vacate your home immediately. If the PFA covers your child as well, you must stay away from your child at all times—including at school, daycare, their work, or any other public places your child will be in.
When does it take effect?
The PFA is in effect as soon as you receive the notice. If you don't comply with the PFA while it's in effect, you are violating the PFA and could be arrested and charged with contempt of the PFA order. The first PFA you receive is temporary, usually lasting only 10 days. After the 10 days, you'll attend a hearing where a judge will decide if the PFA becomes permanent or dismisses it.
Do not ignore a PFA
Receiving a PFA is usually an emotionally distressing experience, especially if you have to leave your family home or stop seeing your children. You might feel like acting out or simply ignoring the PFA, but it would be a mistake to take a PFA lightly. If it becomes permanent, a PFA can have serious consequences on your life. The best chance you have for fighting a temporary PFA and preventing it from becoming permanent is to follow the restrictions exactly, show up for your hearing, and consult an experienced attorney.
Consult an experienced PFA attorney - preferably an attorney who practices criminal defense and family law
After you've read your PFA and complied with the immediate restrictions, your next step should be contacting a defense attorney. Your interests and rights will be best protected when represented by an attorney experienced in handling criminal cases and family law matters as Protection from Abuse cases are a unique area of the law with overlapping issues and concerns as to how a defendant can be affected You usually have less than two weeks before your hearing date, which isn't much time to prepare. It's important to consult with an attorney quickly, both to help you plan for the hearing and advise you on complying with your PFA order.
What to Do Before the Hearing
In the days leading up to your PFA hearing, you should gather evidence and consult with your attorney on how to conduct yourself at the hearing. While you're waiting for your PFA hearing, follow the below tips.
Do not attempt contact with the plaintiff
Under no circumstances should you attempt to contact the plaintiff. If you do, you're violating your PFA. Also, any messages you send to the plaintiff, by SMS, social media, email, or any other medium, can be used against you in your hearing. You also cannot ask a third party to speak to the plaintiff for you, as this is also a violation of the PFA. Even if the plaintiff contacts you, and although you might want to respond, you cannot.
Save all communication records for your attorney
If the plaintiff does contact you, save records of the communication for your attorney. You may be able to use these communication records to help build evidence for your case. It's important to keep as thorough records as possible, and even review communication from before the PFA took effect. Give your attorney any information you can think of that might be pertinent to your PFA hearing.
Gather evidence and find witnesses if possible
PFA hearings do not allow all forms of evidence. If you try to go through the process alone and gather your own evidence, you might be disappointed when you show up to your hearing to find that the judge does not allow your evidence. For this reason, retaining a defense attorney who understands the requirements of a PFA hearing is essential. Your attorney will be able to help you collect appropriate evidence and call upon relevant witnesses.
Do not miss your hearing
If you want to fight your PFA, you cannot miss your hearing. Missing a hearing allows the court to enter a default judgment against you. Attending your hearing is the only chance you'll have to defend your case if you want to contest the PFA. If you want to avoid the permanent consequences a PFA has on your life, then you must make certain you are at your hearing.
Changing the hearing date if you can't make it
When you receive your PFA, the court will have already assigned you a hearing date. Ensure you can attend on this day, and if you can't, then you need to make arrangements with the court to have another hearing date. You have to write to the court and ask for a continuance right away, which will move the date back. You must provide a reason as to why you cannot be present on the original date, and it usually must be a serious conflict. Your lawyer can help you ask the court for a new date if you need one.
If the plaintiff withdraws the PFA
The plaintiff may decide to withdraw the PFA at any time, but the judge must agree to the withdrawal before it takes effect. When the plaintiff asks to withdraw the PFA, the judge must determine if the defendant or anyone else is threatening them to do so. The plaintiff may also have to provide new information to the judge to have the withdrawal approved. Even if the plaintiff contacts you to let you know they're dropping the PFA, do not respond. Do not communicate with the plaintiff at all until the judge has officially lifted the PFA. Contacting the plaintiff before the PFA is officially lifted is still a violation of the order. The plaintiff could also be lying to you, saying they intend to withdraw the PFA when they really don't.
What to Do During the Formal Hearing
Your defense attorney can help you prepare for your hearing, including how to conduct yourself as well as what you'll say in your own defense. You should also keep the following tips in mind.
How to act in the courthouse
Your PFA is still in effect when you're at the courthouse. The no-contact rules apply when both you and the plaintiff show up for the hearing. You'll need to be proactive to keep your distance from your accuser and avoid any issues before the hearing's begun. Avoid sitting or standing near the plaintiff and be respectful to courthouse staff. Assume that your behavior is monitored in the courthouse at all times—not only during the hearing. If you stand any chance of fighting your PFA, you must keep your cool and appear professional.
Be respectful and civil
For the hearing, look presentable and be civil and courteous to everyone. Your goal is to make a good impression to increase your chances of the judge dismissing the PFA. The hearing may be an emotional event, where your accuser will explain why they're afraid of you. Their comments might be difficult to hear, and you may feel overwhelmed, but you must not get upset, even if your accuser distorts the truth. If you lash out, the judge might take it as evidence of your poor moral character.
Provide testimony in your defense
At the hearing, you'll have a chance to defend yourself and provide testimony of your side of events. The plaintiff will likely cite specific dates of incidents that occurred, so you'll need to prepare to discuss those events as well. The point of the hearing is for the judge to hear both sides; your testimony may provide details that your accuser leaves out. It's also best to prepare your testimony ahead of time. You want to give yourself a chance to remember events and dates, so you can cite them as accurately as possible. When it comes to answering the plaintiff's questions, be direct and don't overshare. Saying too much could provide the plaintiff's side with information they could use against you. Also, don't interrupt anyone while they're speaking during the hearing.
Introduce character witnesses
At a PFA hearing, you may bring witnesses for questioning. These witnesses may have been present at incidents between you and the plaintiff, or they may be character witnesses who can vouch for you. Your lawyer can help you select witnesses and prepare questions to ask during the hearing.
Bring in evidence
You may also bring evidence and present it at the hearing. The court prohibits some types of evidence, so it's essential to ask your attorney about gathering and presenting evidence beforehand. Evidence is usually communication between you and the plaintiff, such as copies of text messages, social media posts, emails, and other written records. The rules about evidence for PFA hearings are complicated, so it's best to rely on your attorney for evidence.
What if your accuser doesn't show up?
If the plaintiff doesn't show up to the hearing, the judge will likely dismiss the PFA against you. You have no control over whether your accuser attends the hearing or not. If you try to intimidate the plaintiff or threaten them into not attending the hearing, it's a violation of your PFA, and it could land you in jail.
According to the Pennsylvania courts, 30% of PFA cases involve hearings where the plaintiff doesn't show. While those odds could be good news for you, know that 18% of PFA cases end with a Final PTO Order (FPO) against the defendant. Consulting a defense attorney for a PFA case can help your odds.
After the Formal Hearing
Once the hearing is over and the judge reaches a decision, there are steps you should take and tips you should follow, depending on how the hearing turned out.
Final PFA order
- A final PFA order replaces a temporary one, and the judge may agree to file it against you after the hearing. A final PFA order will require you to:
- Stop abusing, harassing, or stalking the plaintiff
- Stop attempting or threatening physical force against the plaintiff or children
- Surrender your guns, ammunition, and firearm licenses
The final PFA order can also include other stipulations that were in your temporary PFA, such as paying alimony or child support.
When does a PFA expire?
A final PFA takes effect for three years. Once the PFA is permanent, it's much harder to appeal to reverse it. Also, the plaintiff can request an unlimited number of extensions at any time, even before the order expires. These extensions can significantly prolong the duration of your PFA, making it last up to 10 years or more. As long as the plaintiff continues to show evidence of a threat of harm or abuse, the PFA can be extended. Arrest and jail are not the only consequences for violating your PFA; making it last even longer is also a negative impact of not following the PFA's restrictions.
Can you petition to have a PFA dropped?
You cannot appeal or contest the temporary PFA against you, but if a final protection from abuse order is granted against you, you can file a Motion of Reconsideration within 10 days of the judge's decision. This type of motion argues that the judge was in error when they entered an FPO against you. Your best chance at overturning an FPA is to have a lawyer put together the proper legal briefs and paperwork for you.
Can you appeal a PFA?
In addition to filing a Motion for Reconsideration, you can also appeal the judge's decision for an FPO against you up to 30 days after the FPO is entered. For this process, you should retain an attorney to argue on your behalf. Your attorney will attempt to show that the judge erred in fact, law, or both.
Can other steps be taken to try to get a final PFA vacated or dropped?
What other options do you have to get a final PFA vacated or dropped?
If you don't file a Motion for Reconsideration or appeal your final PFA, your attorney may be able to contact the plaintiff's attorney at the appropriate time to ask for reconsideration of the final PFA if you meet some terms or conditions. For example, you could offer to complete counseling or anger management courses in exchange for having the PFA dropped. The court won't order these kinds of rehabilitation in a PFA case, so you have to offer them to the plaintiff yourself. Another option might be agreeing to a new arrangement concerning custody or property. You'll have to speak with your attorney about these options, as they will be able to suggest a reasonable offer you can make to the plaintiff, as well as contact the plaintiff on your behalf (which you cannot do yourself with a PFA).
Pennsylvania PFA orders in other states
A PFA is a type of protective order, which is in the same category as restraining orders in other states. Each state has a reciprocal agreement so that they can access protective orders against individuals. If you have a PFA in Pennsylvania, it's enforceable in other states. In-person contact with the plaintiff on your PFA is also prohibited out of state. In addition, protective or restraining orders from other states are valid in Pennsylvania as well.
Contact a Pennsylvania PFA Defense Attorney
Understanding a PFA from a defendant's perspective isn't easy. Knowing how the courts handle a PFA and how you should conduct yourself are complicated, and without the help of a defense attorney, you may feel lost. To navigate this mess, consider retaining a defense attorney with experience handling PFA and domestic violence cases.
Contact Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. We'll help you survive your PFA in Pennsylvania.