In Pennsylvania, we take domestic violence seriously. That's why the legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990. The Act allows domestic violence victims, sexual assault, and stalking to obtain Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders in specific situations. A PFA is a civil order from the court that protects domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victims. A PFA order is also often called a restraining order or a protection order, but the most common type of protective order in Pennsylvania is the domestic violence PFA order.
The PFA Act lists the procedures for obtaining a PFA and the court and police policies, rules, and regulations that everyone must follow through the order process. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
Protection from Abuse Order Process
The process for obtaining a PFA involves the plaintiff first applying to the court for a temporary PFA. Under Pennsylvania law, the court will enter a temporary order ex parte, with only the plaintiff present. The judge will enter the order if it believes the plaintiff or their children are in “immediate and present danger of abuse.”
"The order shall remain in effect until modified or terminated by the court after notice and hearing.
The court may also order that the police confiscate any guns or firearms you own or possess if the plaintiff's petition demonstrates:
(i) Abuse which involves a firearm or other weapon.
(ii) An immediate and present danger of abuse. In determining whether an immediate and present danger of abuse exists, the court shall consider a number of factors, including, but not limited to:
(A) Whether the temporary order of protection from abuse is not likely to achieve its purpose in the absence of such a condition.
(B) Whether the defendant has previously violated a protection from abuse order.
(C) Whether past or present abuse to the plaintiff or any of the plaintiff's minor children resulted in injury.
(D) Whether the abuse occurred in public.
(E) Whether the abuse includes:
(I) threats of abuse or suicide;
(II) killing or threatening to kill pets;
(III) an escalation of violence;
(IV) stalking or obsessive behavior;
(V) sexual violence; or
(VI) drug or excessive alcohol use."
23 Pa. Stat. § 6107(b).
When the police serve you with the temporary PFA, the court will also notify you of the date for the final hearing and advise you of:
- Your right to be represented by counsel,
- Your right to present evidence,
- Your right to compel the attendance of witnesses and how you may compel them, and
- The possibility that the court may order your weapons, firearms, and ammunition confiscated
"The court shall, at the time the defendant is given notice of the hearing, advise the defendant of the right to be represented by counsel, of the right to present evidence, of the right to compel attendance of witnesses, of the method by which witnesses may be compelled, of the possibility that any firearm, other weapon or ammunition owned and any firearm license possessed may be ordered temporarily relinquished, of the options for relinquishment of a firearm pursuant to this chapter, of the possibility that Federal or State law may prohibit the possession of firearms, including an explanation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) (relating to unlawful acts) and 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105 (relating to persons not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer firearms), and that any protection order granted by a court may be considered in any subsequent proceedings under this title. "
Hearing for the Protection from Abuse Final Order
Perhaps the most important part of the PFA order process is the final hearing. At the hearing, the judge will hear from both parties and determine whether to issue the final order. As part of the hearing, the plaintiff will need to show “beyond a preponderance of the evidence” both that:
- The two of you have a qualifying domestic relationship,
- An act of domestic violence occurred, and
- There is a risk of ongoing domestic violence.
Qualifying domestic relationships include those between current or former intimate partners or family members, including:
- Current or former spouses or intimate partners,
- Members of the same household related by blood or by marriage,
- Same-sex couples,
- Parents and children,
- Siblings, and
- Those with a child together.
To show that an act of domestic violence occurred or is likely to occur in the future, the plaintiff may try to bring a wide range of evidence into the PFA hearing. Evidence may include police or court records, photographs of injuries, emails, text messages, other electronic messages, and medical records. The plaintiff may also try to introduce testimony from witnesses who will corroborate your history with the plaintiff, even for incidents never documented by the police, medical records, or court records.
As part of this process, the judge will also consider your prior history as part of determining whether there is any future risk of domestic violence directed at the plaintiff of their children.
- Any prior protection orders entered against you,
- Prior arrest history,
- Prior convictions for domestic violence,
- Prior convictions for alcohol or drug charges, including driving under the influence, possession, manufacturing, or selling controlled substances,
- Other prior criminal convictions, and
- Any history of child abuse or neglect.
It's important to remember that the court will hold both parties to the rules of evidence. The plaintiff may try to bring in witnesses to present hearsay evidence, meaning a witness testifying to an out-of-court statement as if it were the truth of the matter. The court typically won't allow hearsay evidence admission unless it meets a legal exception to the rule. However, if you don't have an attorney during the hearing, the plaintiff's attorney will quite likely get hearsay evidence admitted with no one to raise the proper legal challenges. Evidentiary complications demonstrate why having an experienced defense attorney offers you the best opportunity to defend yourself from a PFA order successfully.
While it may seem like the standard for a PFA order is pretty high, the burden of proof is only the “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning it is more likely than not. In contrast, a criminal trial affords the defendant a burden of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a much higher standard.
Hire an Experienced Attorney
If you're facing a hearing for a protection from abuse order, you need legal guidance. A final PFA can have long-term consequences on your life, particularly if you inadvertently violate the order. You need a Pennsylvania attorney experienced in defending against protection from abuse orders. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience defending Pennsylvania clients from PFAs, domestic violence charges, and other criminal charges. He can help you too. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online.