Domestic violence is a serious matter in Pennsylvania and across the country. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than ten million Americans will face some type of abuse each year. That's why Pennsylvania lawmakers enacted the Protection from Abuse Act. The Act defines domestic violence and sets forth procedures to protect victims from abuse. But the Act also affects the legal process for domestic violence arrests and investigations. If you're facing domestic violence charges in Pennsylvania, it's good to be familiar with domestic violence legislation in our state. An experienced Pennsylvania domestic violence defense attorney can also guide you through your options in the criminal justice system.
Misdemeanors Versus Felonies in Pennsylvania
Arrests for domestic violence in Pennsylvania can involve either misdemeanor or felony charges depending on the severity of the crime, whether the alleged victim faced any injuries, and whether this is a first offense.
Pennsylvania has three classes of misdemeanors:
- First-degree Misdemeanor: The penalty for the most serious misdemeanor, a first-degree misdemeanor, is up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Domestic violence-related first-degree misdemeanors include stalking and simple assault of a child.
- Second-degree Misdemeanor: The penalty for a second-degree misdemeanor is up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Domestic violence-related second-degree misdemeanors include charges such as simple assault of an adult.
- Third-degree Misdemeanor: The penalty for a third-degree misdemeanor is up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Domestic violence-related third-degree misdemeanors include charges like a simple assault involving mutual combat.
Some Pennsylvania crimes also have mandatory minimum sentences, which may vary from the standard misdemeanor penalties. Moreover, a second or third offense will often increase the penalties for a misdemeanor conviction dramatically.
Felony charges are often more serious than misdemeanors or summary offenses. Crimes that involve serious physical harm or injuries are far more likely to be classified as felonies and involve steeper jail times and fines. Penalties for felonies in Pennsylvania can range from one year to life in prison. At times, second or third misdemeanor offenses can also become felony charges.
Pennsylvania law classifies felonies by degree, based on severity:
- First-degree Felony: A first-degree felony is the most serious, with penalties of up to 20 years to life in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. Domestic violence-related felonies in Pennsylvania include charges such as murder, kidnapping, rape, and assault with threatened or serious bodily injury.
- Second-degree Felony: A second-degree felony conviction in Pennsylvania can carry up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Domestic violence-related second-degree felonies include crimes such as aggravated assault.
- Third-degree Felony: A third-degree felony conviction carries penalties of up to seven years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine. Domestic violence-related third-degree felonies include certain theft charges.
In some cases, the court will set the penalty for a felony conviction, including more serious charges like murder.
Evidence and Domestic Violence
At trial, the state must present evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you are guilty of the charged crime.
Burden of Proof
In a domestic violence case, the state must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Under Pennsylvania law, you can't be found guilty unless the state proves each element of the domestic violence offense to this standard. In the absence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the court must find you not guilty.
In a domestic violence case against you, the state will use all the evidence they have against you. Types of evidence may include:
- Photographs: The state may introduce photographs of any injuries you or the victim has, photographs of the scene of the alleged crime, photos of damaged property, forced entry, or more.
- Victim Testimony: The state may often use the victim to testify against you, describing events as they occurred from their viewpoint. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the victim and point out inconsistencies in their story with physical evidence, other witness testimony, photographs, and police reports.
- Witness Testimony: Your attorney and the prosecutor may call additional witnesses during your trial, including witnesses to the alleged crime, neighbors, police officers, family members, and bystanders.
- Broken Property: The prosecutor may introduce it as evidence if the domestic violence incident resulted in any broken property. They could introduce this evidence to show intent to cause harm to the victim.
- Medical Reports: The prosecutor or your attorney may also introduce medical reports and records as part of the prosecution or the defense. Medical records can document whether either of you had injuries requiring medical care resulting from the alleged crime. Medical professionals must also report domestic violence when you seek medical care.
You also have the opportunity to introduce evidence at trial as part of your defense against domestic violence charges. Your attorney may also challenge evidence introduced by the prosecution, introduce an affirmative defense such as self-defense, or argue that the state hasn't introduced enough evidence of your guilt to meet its burden of proof. Defenses your attorney may introduce include:
- False accusations
- False identification
- Police error
Domestic Violence Charges in Pennsylvania
Domestic violence charges can include a wide range of offenses, including:
- Sexual assault
See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6102(a) (2018). Domestic violence charges are not limited to those involving just physical violence, but the parties must have a domestic relationship.
Domestic Violence Court Process
Police in Pennsylvania take domestic violence allegations very seriously. As a result, any domestic violence call will follow some specific police procedures. Moreover, any charges will follow predictable court pretrial and trial processes.
During a domestic violence call, the police will arrest you if they have probable cause to believe you've committed an act of domestic violence or you've violated a protection from abuse or stay away order. In determining whether to make an arrest, the police will:
- Inform the victim of their rights
- Ask specific questions of both of you about what happened
- Investigate the scene, look for evidence, and question witnesses
- Look for signs of injuries
If the police have probable cause, they will arrest you.
After your arrest, the court will follow a typical pretrial and trial process, including:
- Preliminary Arraignment: A preliminary arraignment will happen shortly after your arrest, where you'll appear before a magisterial district judge to be informed of the charges against you. The judge may grant or deny you bond and issue a “stay away” order ordering you to refrain from contacting or approaching the alleged victim.
- Preliminary Hearing: A preliminary hearing typically happens within ten days of your arrest. At the hearing, the prosecution must show enough evidence to indicate that you more than likely committed a crime. This burden of proof is lower than that at trial, but it allows you and your attorney to see the state's evidence against you.
- Formal Arraignment: If the court decides there's enough evidence to proceed, you'll face a formal arraignment. You'll be formally charged at the arraignment and will plead guilty or not guilty.
At trial, the state must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” You'll have the choice of whether to face trial by a judge or a jury of your peers, and the prosecutor will present the evidence to the court. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine all witnesses and challenge all the submitted evidence. You will also have the chance to present witnesses and evidence for the defense. Ultimately, the judge or the jury will deliberate and render a verdict.
Domestic Violence Sentences in Pennsylvania
Crimes in Pennsylvania typically fall into three basic categories: summary offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies. The police may charge some common domestic violence charges as either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the severity of the crime. However, just because a crime is a misdemeanor doesn't mean you can't face serious consequences, including jail time.
Most penalties for a conviction are set by Pennsylvania's sentencing laws and depend upon the degree of the crime and the defendant's criminal history.
- Misdemeanors: Penalties for misdemeanor domestic violence convictions range from zero to five years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines, depending on the severity of the crime.
- Felonies: Penalties for felony domestic violence convictions range from one year to life and up to $25,000 in fines, depending on the degree of the crime.
Domestic Violence Penalties
Some domestic violence crimes are known as “wobblers,” which means they may be either misdemeanors or felonies. Some examples of domestic violence charges that can be either include:
- Harassment: Harassment happens when someone directs “unwanted conduct” at someone else with the intent to “harass, annoy, or alarm.” Harassment can include threats, sexual remarks, or hitting or pushing someone. 18 Pa.C.S. §2709(a).
- Stalking: Under Pennsylvania law, if someone repeatedly follows or communicates with another person and causes severe emotional distress or reasonable fear of bodily injury, they face stalking charges. See 18 Pa.C.S. §2709.1.
- Assault: “assault” is a broad-ranging term that can include everything from simple assault, aggravated assault, terrorism, or strangulation. See 18 Pa.C.S. §2701, et seq.
- False Imprisonment: False imprisonment occurs under Pennsylvania law if someone “knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.” 18 Pa.C.S. §2903.
- Kidnapping: You could face kidnapping charges under Pennsylvania law if you either: (1) unlawfully confine someone for a “substantial period in a place of isolation” or (2) unlawfully remove someone a “substantial distance” from where you found them. See 18 Pa.C.S. §2901.
Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
If accused of domestic violence, you could also face one of two types of court orders preventing you from contacting or approaching an alleged victim. These orders include Protection from Abuse (PFA) and “Stay Away” orders.
Protection From Abuse (PFA) Orders
Pennsylvania law allows victims of domestic violence to seek protection from current or former intimate partners or family members through a court-ordered Protection from Abuse (PFA) order. Applicants must show both that they are in a qualifying domestic relationship and that an act of domestic violence occurred between the parties.
Qualifying domestic relationships for a PFA include:
- Current or former spouses
- Current or former intimate partners
- Those related by blood or by marriage
- Same-sex couples
- Couples with a child in common
Aside from a domestic relationship, an applicant for a PFA must show that an act of domestic violence happened between the parties. The list of crimes that qualify as domestic violence in Pennsylvania is long, but some of the most common include assault, harassment, stalking, theft, sexual assault, and burglary. See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6102(a) (2018).
Stay Away Orders
Often, if you face domestic violence charges, the judge will issue a Stay Away order to prevent you from contacting or approaching the alleged victim in a case. A Stay Away order is similar to a Protection from Abuse order but is issued by a criminal court rather than a civil court. If you violate a Stay Away order, it may be a violation of the terms of your release, and the police may arrest you. In some cases, the alleged victim may also seek a civil PFA order in addition to the Stay Away order.
You Need an Experienced Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney
Facing criminal charges for domestic violence can be a serious matter with jail time, fines, and serious long-term consequences. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his skilled legal team at the Lento Law Firm have helped many Pennsylvanians through the criminal justice system, and they can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 to schedule a consultation or contact them online today.