Domestic violence is a serious crime in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the laws are very strict concerning such allegations. Simply being accused of domestic violence in Pennsylvania can cause severe disruptions to your life and fragmentation to your family, and a conviction can cause negative repercussions that last for many years. If you have recently been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, or if you are currently facing charges, you're likely experiencing an abundance of feelings right now—including overwhelming fear and uncertainty. Those feelings are valid because it's difficult to know what to expect and how this event will impact your life in the long run.
Two things can help in this situation: good information and a good attorney. Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer in Pennsylvania who has helped many defendants find more positive outcomes as they face domestic violence charges. As you're considering your options, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following common questions and answers to make sure you're well-informed about domestic violence laws in Pennsylvania, what you can expect, and how you can prepare.
How does Pennsylvania define domestic violence?
The laws defining domestic abuse are covered in Pennsylvania under Title 23 of its criminal code, Section 6102. The law classifies domestic violence as any of a number of acts occurring against a member of one's family or household; a sexual or intimate partner; or someone with whom the perpetrator has a child in common.
Specifically, domestic abuse is defined as any of the following acts committed against someone on the list above:
- Knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly causing any kind of bodily injury, or attempting to cause such an injury
- Committing (or attempting to commit) an act of assault (either sexual or non-sexual), including statutory sexual assault and/or forced deviant sexual behavior
- False imprisonment
- Physical or sexual abuse of a minor child
- Causing the other person reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury
- A pattern of conduct or repeated behavior that causes the victim to be in constant reasonable fear of bodily injury
As you can see, these definitions embody a wide range of specific actions that, when committed against a family member or significant other, could be considered domestic violence. These may include:
- Physical assault, i.e., kicking, pushing, shoving
- Criminal restraint—restricting the person from leaving the house, going to work, or seeing family
- Threatening to cause harm to the person (in a way that they believe you)
- Sexual assault, lewdness, or coercion
- Stalking the person, either online or in person
- Online or in-person harassment in a way that makes the person fear for their safety
Can I be arrested and charged with domestic violence without making physical contact with my significant other?
Yes. There are numerous acts listed above that meet the criteria for domestic violence but do not involve actually making physical contact. In many cases, the other person could use these behaviors to allege domestic abuse even if that wasn't your intent. Some examples might include:
- A heated argument in which you said something that could be construed as a threat of harm
- Trying multiple times to reach your partner by phone or in person, which could be interpreted as harassment or stalking
- Sending your partner intimate photos or texts and having them be used to accuse you of unwanted sexual behavior/exposure
The bottom line here is that you shouldn't assume you are “safe” from arrest or criminal charges because you never actually touched your partner in a dispute. Many other actions can be interpreted as domestic violence and used to incriminate you—which is why it's important to have an attorney representing you.
Will I have to make bail to be released from jail if I am arrested for domestic violence in Pennsylvania?
Quite possibly, but not always. The judge determines bail based on a number of factors, including the severity of the accusation, the presence of injuries, the involvement of any weapons, your prior criminal history, and whether you are deemed a flight risk. You may be released on your own recognizance, especially if this is your first arrest and there are few signs of injury, but the judge may also set bail if it's deemed necessary to ensure you show up for your court date. A good defense attorney can work on your behalf to minimize or eliminate your bail requirements.
How do the police handle a domestic violence call in Pennsylvania?
Law enforcement in Pennsylvania has a priority of making sure potential victims of domestic violence receive help and protection as soon as possible. For that reason, they tend to respond quickly to calls regarding domestic violence, and they are empowered to make arrests without a warrant if they have probable cause—that is, if they see evidence that suggests domestic violence has taken place.
Here is the gist of what to expect if the police show up on a domestic violence call:
- They will ask specific questions about what happened and make sure the alleged victim knows their rights.
- They will investigate the scene—ask questions, observe evidence, look for signs of injury, etc.
- If they see signs that point to a domestic violence act (e.g., physical damage, signs of a recent injury, the presence of a weapon, etc.), they will arrest the person to whom the evidence points.
- If you violated a restraining order in the process of the incident, the police will seize any/all firearms or weapons that may be present.
If you are arrested for domestic violence but you believe the police strayed from proper protocol or violated your rights, it's important to tell your attorney about this as soon as possible as it may affect the outcome of your case.
What is a PFA, and how do PFAs work?
A PFA is a Protection From Abuse order, a specific kind of restraining order applicable to domestic violence cases. The alleged victim can petition the court for a temporary PFA, which can be granted strictly on the victim's side of the story without your input (ex parte). The temporary PFA stays in effect until a hearing is scheduled (normally within 10 days), at which point the judge may either terminate the PFA or finalize it, possibly making modifications to the terms. Finalized PFAs can last up to three years, but they can also be extended beyond that.
A PFA allows for certain additional provisions that are designed to afford additional protection to alleged domestic violence victims and their families. If you are charged with domestic violence and the judge grants a PFA prohibiting you from further contact with the alleged victim, the judge may also include any/all of the following provisions on the PFA as deemed necessary:
- You may be prohibited from having any contact or communication with the alleged victim and any minor children you have together.
- You may be specifically barred from trying to contact the victim, the victim's relatives, or your children at work or school.
- The PFA may award your partner exclusive use of your home, requiring you to find alternate housing for yourself.
- The PFA may award your partner temporary full custody of your children and deny you custody or visitation rights while the PFA is in effect.
- You may be required to provide financial support to your significant other and any children involved.
- You may be mandated to cover any financial loss the alleged victim incurred as a result of the incident, including lost wages, medical expenses, and repair/replacement of items damaged.
- You may be required to temporarily surrender any firearms or weapons that were used in the alleged act of domestic violence.
Since the powers of the PFA are broad and have long-reaching implications for you if you're accused of domestic violence, it's important to have your attorney involved at any/all PFA hearings to help minimize the impact of the PFA.
What happens if I violate the PFA just to talk to my partner about what happened?
No matter how pure your intentions might be—and even if your partner signals a willingness to talk—if there is a PFA in effect and you violate the terms for any reason, you can be charged with the separate crime of indirect criminal contempt, which can land you up to 6 months in jail and a $1000 fine. That's in addition to any penalties you receive on conviction for the domestic violence charges themselves. If there is a PFA against you, that PFA needs to be officially terminated before you resume conversations or contact with your significant other.
Why could ignoring the PFA get me in trouble if my partner and I are consenting to mutual contact?
Because the PFA isn't an issue between you and your partner—it's between you and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The restraining order has been issued by the state, so only the state can rescind it. The same is true of your domestic violence charges—once an arrest has been made, your dispute is no longer between you and your partner, but between you and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Because the state is now involved, you must go through the steps of settling the matter with the state. To resume contact with your significant other requires you (or her) to petition the court to withdraw the PFA.
What happens to me after a domestic violence arrest? What can I expect?
Being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence can upend your life in a number of ways—whether or not you are actually charged with a crime. For example:
- If you live with the alleged victim and they obtain a PFA, you will not be allowed to come home.
- You may be separated from your children and denied visitation rights while charges are pending—and possibly for some time to come.
- You may see your family fractured and divided over the issue.
- Your job could be jeopardized.
- You may have to deal with public scrutiny and judgment from friends, coworkers, peers, etc.
What happens if I am convicted of domestic violence?
Domestic violence crimes in Pennsylvania can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the type of crime and severity. However, even misdemeanors in Pennsylvania can result in significant fines and prison time. Felonies are considered even more serious and will result in even more fines and longer prison sentences, along with other repercussions. Let's look a little deeper at both.
Misdemeanor domestic violence crimes in Pennsylvania
Misdemeanors may be categorized as Third-Degree, Second-Degree or First-Degree Misdemeanors. Common examples of misdemeanors may include harassment, stalking, simple assault, criminal trespass, etc.
For lesser misdemeanor offenses, the judge may opt for lesser or no jail time in favor of probation, court-ordered classes, etc. However, you should be aware of the possible maximum penalties if you're convicted of a misdemeanor:
- For Third-Degree Misdemeanors: fines up to $2,500/up to 1 year in jail
- For Second-Degree Misdemeanors: fines up to $5000/up to 2 years in prison
- For First-Degree Misdemeanors: fines up to $10,000/up to 5 years in prison
Felony domestic violence crimes in Pennsylvania
Felony convictions in Pennsylvania are considered more serious and usually involve some amount of prison time, along with possible fines. Examples of felony domestic violence crimes might include: aggravated assault (i.e., resulting in serious injury), rape/sexual assault, kidnapping, or weapons-related injuries.
For Third-Degree Felonies: fines up to $15,000/up to 7 years in prison
For Second-Degree Felonies: fines up to $25,000/up to 10 years in prison
For First-Degree Felonies: fines up to $25,000/up to 20 years in prison
What long-term challenges could I face after a domestic violence arrest or conviction?
Separate from any sentences you might need to serve if you are convicted, the repercussions of domestic violence can disrupt your life and family for many years to come. You may need to be prepared for any or all of the following:
- Long-term separation from your spouse/partner. PFAs can last for three years, and longer if the judge grants an extension.
- Loss of custody/visitation of your kids. A PFA may include loss of custody and visitation rights, but even if not, a domestic violence conviction can be used against you in custody disputes.
- Limitations on the type of job you can work. You may be disqualified from working certain jobs, especially if you are convicted of a felony.
- Loss of your professional license. If you are a professional who is licensed by a state regulatory board, a criminal conviction could put your license in jeopardy.
- Challenges getting hired. If an employer runs a criminal background check, they may not hire you if they see domestic violence activity in your record.
- Challenges attending school. Certain schools will deny admission if you have a domestic violence conviction on your record. It can also render you ineligible for certain types of financial aid.
- Challenges finding housing. Landlords often run background checks on prospective tenants, and a domestic violence conviction won't serve you well on a rental application.
- Loss of your right to purchase firearms. People convicted of violent crimes (misdemeanors or felonies) in Pennsylvania aren't allowed to purchase weapons.
Can I appeal my domestic violence conviction?
Yes, you can. Pennsylvania law makes any criminal conviction eligible for direct appeal to Superior Court for review. In addition, under certain conditions, you may be eligible to appeal your case a second time under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) if your direct appeal is denied. However, be aware of the added expense and limitations. Appellate courts do not re-try cases or consider new evidence—they only review your case for errors that might have affected the outcome and to ensure you were given a fair trial. Appeals can be costly, and they rarely result in overturned convictions, so you may not want to spend the time and effort unless your attorney truly believes you can prove you were denied justice.
What if I am not convicted? Will my domestic violence arrest stay on my criminal record?
In the vast majority of cases, an arrest will remain part of your criminal record even if you are not convicted. However, for arrests that do not result in a conviction, you may be able to petition to have the arrest expunged from your record. Talk to your attorney about this possibility.
Is it possible to get my conviction expunged?
In certain cases, yes, and if certain conditions are met. Felony convictions generally stay on your record permanently, but you may eventually be able to have a felony expunged if you are over the age of 70 and have had no arrests for at least 10 years. Some misdemeanor convictions may also be "sealed" after 10 years under Pennsylvania's laws involving "Limited Access". However, if you're recently convicted of domestic violence, you can expect the conviction to stay on your record and be available to employers and others for some time.
What if I want to reconcile with my partner/spouse?
The number one obstacle to reconciliation after a domestic violence incident is the existence of the Protection From Abuse order (PFA). If you and your significant other mutually desire to reconcile, the alleged victim must petition the court to terminate the PFA first. However, bear in mind that once an arrest has been made and charges have been filed, you may still have to face trial for domestic violence even if you reconcile with your spouse or partner. The alleged victim may request to drop the charges, but it's ultimately up to the prosecutors whether to drop the charges or move ahead.
Why do I need an attorney if I'm arrested for domestic violence?
Domestic violence is a crime in Pennsylvania, which means once you're arrested and charged with a crime, your dispute is with the Commonwealth—not your significant other. You technically have the right to represent yourself in court for criminal charges, but that almost never goes well for the defendant. The criminal justice system in Pennsylvania skews heavily toward protecting victims of domestic violence, which means that even with the axiom of “innocent until proven guilty,” you're starting out at a disadvantage. Facing criminal domestic violence charges without having legal representation makes it much more likely that you'll receive a more severe sentence and possibly even be denied due process. By contrast, hiring an experienced attorney greatly increases your chances for a more favorable outcome—whether it's having the charges dismissed or receiving a more lenient sentence.
Should I answer police questions at the police station?
Not without an attorney present. The police may attempt to question you and may be very convincing in their intentions to “help” you, but their job is to find evidence against you—and that includes your own testimony. Remember: anything you say to the police can and will be used against you in a court of law. Therefore, we strongly advise that you politely decline to answer questions until your attorney is present, then ask them to allow you to contact one.
What kind of attorney should I look for?
Any attorney who is licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania can legally serve as your defense counsel. However, not every attorney is skilled and experienced in the nuances of criminal defense cases or domestic violence issues. When seeking an attorney, look for someone with specific experience and a good track record defending people accused of domestic violence. Your chances of a positive outcome go up considerably if the attorney is familiar with the courts, the prosecution, and the nuances of the charges against you.
What are some common strategies to defend against domestic violence charges in Pennsylvania?
Domestic violence cases are rarely open-and-shut. Even if there's plenty of evidence against you, it's possible to present a compelling defense, especially if you have the right attorney to help you. Your attorney will evaluate the circumstances and the evidence to help you determine the best defense strategy for your situation. Some of the more common lines of defense for domestic violence cases include the following:
- Self-defense. You were defending yourself using reasonable force against an attack by the alleged victim or acting to protect your children. For this defense, the attorney will need to compile evidence and/or witnesses that show you did not instigate the altercation.
- False accusation. The alleged victim is falsely accusing you of domestic violence—possibly for revenge. This approach requires your attorney to demonstrate that there is insufficient physical evidence to support the charges, and that any injuries to the alleged victim may have been self-inflicted.
- False identification. You assert that the accuser may have been attacked, but it was not you. This defense can be very effective if you can establish a solid alibi that places you away from the date/time of the incident.
- Lack of intent. The injuries to the victim were accidental and were not the result of an intentional attack. Your attorney will need to gather evidence that demonstrates this line of reasoning, as well as proving a lack of motive on your part to cause harm.
- Police error. The police didn't follow proper protocols in their response to the domestic violence call, or perhaps arrested the wrong person. This defense should have available proof in the police record as well as from any witnesses on hand.
- Burden of proof. If the evidence against you is scant, your attorney makes the case that it is impossible to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Plea deal. If the evidence against you is particularly damning, your attorney may recommend negotiating a plea agreement with the prosecution. Under a plea deal, you would plead guilty to a lesser offense in order to avoid trial, and in return the prosecution would agree to a more lenient sentence. While this option results in a conviction, it will likely result in a lesser long-term impact on your life and your family.
How can a good domestic violence defense attorney help my case?
An attorney with expertise in domestic violence defense can work on your behalf to improve your outlook and your chances for a favorable outcome. That could be in the form of an acquittal, a lesser conviction/sentence, or even dismissal of the charges. A good attorney can:
- Negotiate for the best terms for your release pending trial, including little or no bail
- Conduct a separate investigation of the alleged incident and review the available evidence
- Evaluate the case and the circumstances to give you reliable advice regarding your options
- Work with you to decide on the defense strategy with the best odds of success
- Gather evidence and procure witnesses to support your defense
- Negotiate with prosecutors and the judge for the reduction and/or dismissal of the charges
- Appeal a PFA or request reconsideration of the Judge's decision
- Petition to modify or vacate a PFA
- Work to protect or restore your custody/visitation rights toward your children
- Defend you during your trial, aggressively if necessary
- Coordinate an appeal if you are found guilty and you have the appropriate grounds for appeal
The important thing to remember when selecting an attorney is that this is not just a formality. The right attorney in your corner can greatly affect the outcome of your case. Make sure you choose a lawyer who understands what is at stake, knows the system, and knows how to work for the best solutions for you and your family.
How soon should I contact a domestic violence defense attorney once I am arrested?
The short answer is, as soon as you can. You should be allowed to call an attorney as soon as you arrive at the police station, and you should not answer police questions without having an attorney present. The sooner you get a lawyer involved, the more likely you are to receive a more favorable outcome, and the better your chances for piecing your life and family back together.
Domestic Violence Attorney in Pennsylvania
Domestic violence charges can upend a person's life faster than almost anything else. A simple disagreement that gets out of hand, an honest misunderstanding, a lapse in judgment, or even a thirst for vengeance—any or all of these can result in you facing charges for domestic violence, along with a very uncertain future. There's simply too much at stake for you to risk losing it all by hiring an ineffective attorney—or worse, attempting to “go it alone.” Hiring an attorney with proven experience in domestic violence cases can give you a fighting chance to get past this horrible event and begin putting your life back in order.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience in the Pennsylvania court system, especially when it comes to domestic violence defendants. His knowledge and understanding of the law and of the court system will work greatly to your advantage. Don't take unnecessary risks with your future. If you are facing domestic violence charges, get some expert help in your corner right away. Call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to see how we can help and to discuss your options.