If the police have served you with a protection from abuse (PFA) order, you're undoubtedly wondering what this means, what happens next, and what the possible repercussions are. Because a PFA can have a wide range of provisions dictating what you can and cannot do, it can be easy to inadvertently violate an order, leading to criminal charges. As a result, you must read and understand all of the provisions in any PFA order against you.
What is a Protection from Abuse Order?
A Pennsylvania court issues a protection from abuse (PFA) order under the Protection from Abuse Act. This 1990 law allows victims to obtain a court order of protection, also known as a restraining order or a protective order. The law describes the procedures for obtaining a protection from abuse (PFA) order from the court, the provisions a PFA may contain, and the regulations that the police, court, plaintiff, and defendant must follow through the PFA process. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018). The judge will first issue a temporary PFA that will remain in place until the final hearing, approximately ten days. Both parties will have the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses at the final hearing. But the plaintiff will have the burden to show that abuse occurred by a preponderance of the evidence.
What Provisions can a Protection from Abuse Order Contain?
The court can include a wide range of provisions in a final PFA, and they will vary from case to case. However, most PFA orders will prohibit you from contacting or approaching the plaintiff, whether in person or online. The order will typically prevent you from calling, emailing, texting, or messaging the plaintiff and prohibit you from approaching the plaintiff's home, work, school, or other places they frequent.
The order may also contain:
"(1) Directing the defendant to refrain from abusing the plaintiff or minor children.
(2) Granting possession to the plaintiff of the residence or household to the exclusion of the defendant by evicting the defendant or restoring possession to the plaintiff if the residence or household is jointly owned or leased by the parties, is owned or leased by the entireties or is owned or leased solely by the plaintiff.
(3) If the defendant has a duty to support the plaintiff or minor children living in the residence or household and the defendant is the sole owner or lessee, granting possession to the plaintiff of the residence or household to the exclusion of the defendant by evicting the defendant or restoring possession to the plaintiff or, with the consent of the plaintiff, ordering the defendant to provide suitable alternate housing.
(4) Awarding temporary custody of or establishing temporary visitation rights with regard to minor children. [….]" (Pa. Stat. 23 § 6108 )
The judge can also direct you to pay financial support for children or a spouse in the PFA:
"(5) After a hearing in accordance with section 6107(a), directing the defendant to pay financial support to those persons the defendant has a duty to support, requiring the defendant, under sections 4324 (relating to inclusion of medical support) and 4326 (relating to mandatory inclusion of child medical support), to provide health coverage for the minor child and spouse, directing the defendant to pay all of the unreimbursed medical expenses of a spouse or minor child of the defendant to the provider or to the plaintiff when he or she has paid for the medical treatment, and directing the defendant to make or continue to make rent or mortgage payments on the residence of the plaintiff to the extent that the defendant has a duty to support the plaintiff or other dependent household members. The support order shall be temporary, and any beneficiary of the order must file a complaint for support under the provisions of Chapters 43 (relating to support matters generally) and 45 (relating to reciprocal enforcement of support orders) within two weeks of the date of the issuance of the protection order. If a complaint for support is not filed, that portion of the protection order requiring the defendant to pay support is void. When there is a subsequent ruling on a complaint for support, the portion of the protection order requiring the defendant to pay support expires.
(6) Prohibiting the defendant from having any contact with the plaintiff or minor children, including, but not limited to, restraining the defendant from entering the place of employment or business or school of the plaintiff or minor children and from harassing the plaintiff or plaintiff's relatives or minor children." (Id)
The PFA can also prohibit you from owning or possessing firearms:
"(7) Prohibiting the defendant from acquiring or possessing any firearm for the duration of the order, ordering the defendant to temporarily relinquish to the sheriff or the appropriate law enforcement agency any firearms under the defendant's possession or control, and requiring the defendant to relinquish to the sheriff or the appropriate law enforcement agency any firearm license issued under section 6108.3 (relating to relinquishment to third party for safekeeping) or 18 Pa.C.S. § 6106 (relating to firearms not to be carried without a license) or 6109 (relating to licenses) the defendant may possess. The court may also order the defendant to relinquish the defendant's other weapons or ammunition that have been used or been threatened to be used in an incident of abuse against the plaintiff or the minor children.[….]
(7.1) If the defendant is a licensed firearms dealer, ordering the defendant to follow such restrictions as the court may require concerning the conduct of his business, which may include ordering the defendant to relinquish any Federal or State license for the sale, manufacture or importation of firearms as well as firearms in the defendant's business inventory. In restricting the defendant pursuant to this paragraph, the court shall make a reasonable effort to preserve the financial assets of the defendant's business while fulfilling the goals of this chapter." (Id)
The PFA can also direct the defendant to pay reparations or losses that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the abuse:
"(8) Directing the defendant to pay the plaintiff for reasonable losses suffered as a result of the abuse, including medical, dental, relocation and moving expenses; counseling; loss of earnings or support; costs of repair or replacement of real or personal property damaged, destroyed or taken by the defendant or at the direction of the defendant; and other out-of-pocket losses for injuries sustained. In addition to out-of-pocket losses, the court may direct the defendant to pay reasonable attorney fees. An award under this chapter shall not constitute a bar to litigation for civil damages for injuries sustained from the acts of abuse giving rise to the award or a finding of contempt under this chapter." (Id)
In addition to preventing you from contacting the defendant, the PFA can also prohibit you from stalking or harassing the defendant or their friends or family:
"(9) Directing the defendant to refrain from stalking or harassing the plaintiff and other designated persons as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 2709 (relating to harassment) and 2709.1 (relating to stalking)." (Id)
The judge also has wide latitude to granny any additional relief the plaintiff seeks:
"(10) Granting any other appropriate relief sought by the plaintiff." (Id)
Because of the wide range of provisions a judge can include in a final PFA, it's never a good idea to skip the final hearing. A final PFA order can remain in place for up to three years. To ensure the best possibility of successfully defending yourself against the PFA, you should hire an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney.
Will I Have a Criminal Record with a Protection from Abuse Order?
A PFA order is a civil matter rather than a criminal matter. As a result, you won't have a criminal record simply because a judge issues a temporary or final PFA against you. However, all PFA orders, whether temporary or final, are entered into a statewide database by the police. While this database won't appear in standard employer or landlord background checks, it will appear in FBI background checks.
What Happens if I Violate a Protection from Abuse Order?
While a PFA is a civil matter, a violation of a PFA order is a criminal offense. If you violate any of the PFA protective portions, the police can arrest you and charge you with a crime. After a credible accusation from the plaintiff that you've violated a PFA, you can find yourself facing up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If found guilty of violating a PFA, you will have a criminal record for “indirect criminal contempt.” Even violations of a PFA that you believe were innocent or inadvertent can result in a criminal charge.
However, violating the other portions of a PFA, such as the support provisions, is a civil matter that the plaintiff can enforce in family court.
Hire an Experienced Attorney
A final FPA order can have long-lasting consequences, especially if you inadvertently violate an order. Your best defense is to hire an attorney skilled in handling and defending PFA orders. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience defending Pennsylvania clients from PFAs and criminal domestic violence charges. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online. Attorney Lento can help you too.