Domestic violence is a serious matter in Pennsylvania and nationwide. There is a disturbing link between family violence and domestic violence homicides. Over the last ten years, more than 1,600 people have died from domestic violence-related events in Pennsylvania. That's why the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990. This law protects victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking from repeated assaults with a court order of protection known as Protection from Abuse (PFA). See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6101, et seq. (2018). The most common type of protective order in Pennsylvania is the domestic violence PFA.
The consequences of a PFA order can also be quite serious for you as a defendant. A PFA can order you from the home you share with the plaintiff even if you pay for it. A PFA can prevent you from seeing your children, approaching the plaintiff's home, office, or school, and order you to provide financial support. While a PFA is a civil matter, you can face criminal prosecution and a criminal record if you inadvertently violate the order.
Types of Protection from Abuse Orders
The process of obtaining a PFA involves:
- An application.
- An ex parte hearing for a temporary PFA.
- A hearing to determine whether a judge should issue a final PFA.
The temporary PFA hearing will happen with just the plaintiff. The defendant doesn't have the right to notice or to appear at the hearing. However, when the judge issues a temporary PFA, they will also set a hearing for a final PFA hearing.
At the final PFA hearing, both parties have the opportunity to appear and tell their stories. Both parties can submit evidence and witnesses to the court, and both have the opportunity to cross-examine the other party's witnesses as well. At the hearing, the plaintiff must prove their case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” A preponderance of the evidence means that it's more likely than not that abuse occurred.
Obtaining a Final PFA in Pennsylvania
To issue a final PFA, the plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that you are in a qualifying domestic relationship and that an act of domestic violence occurred.
Relationships that qualify for a PFA in Pennsylvania include intimate or domestic relationships such as:
- Current or former spouses,
- Current or former dating or intimate relationships,
- Siblings or parent and child,
- Family members by blood or marriage,
- Same-sex couples, and
- Those with a child together.
The plaintiff must also show that an act of abuse occurred. The PFA statute defines abuse pretty broadly:
"1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon; (2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury; (3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2903; (4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63; and (5) knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under the circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury." (Pa. Stat. §6102 )
Some common domestic violence charges considered abuse include:
- Sexual assault,
- Burglary, and
Getting a PFA Order Dismissed
You basically have two chances for a judge to dismiss a PFA order. First, when the plaintiff first applies for the PFA, they will have an ex parte hearing with the judge. The judge will assume that the facts in the plaintiff's complaint are true. As long as they meet the statute's requirements and allege that an act of abuse occurred and you have a domestic relationship that qualifies under the PFA statute, the judge will probably issue the temporary PFA and set a hearing to determine whether to issue a final PFA order. If the plaintiff's facts don't meet the statute's requirements, the judge probably won't issue the temporary PFA.
Your next chance for a PFA dismissal is during the hearing for the final PFA. If you don't have a conviction for a crime of domestic violence, or if the plaintiff doesn't have any objective evidence of abuse like medical records, photographs, or something similar, it will be harder for them to prove that abuse happened. The plaintiff must show both: (1) abuse and (2) a qualifying relationship by a preponderance of the evidence. If the plaintiff can't show this during the hearing, or if your attorney successfully casts doubt on their case, then the judge will dismiss the PFA.
Appealing a PFA Order
After a final PFA is in place, you have two options to appeal. You can:
- File a motion for reconsideration in the same court, or
- File an appeal of the PFA to the Superior Court.
You must file a Motion for Reconsideration in the same court within ten days of the order. Your attorney will argue that the judge made a mistake in entering the order against you and set forth the grounds for the mistake.
You can appeal a final PFA to Superior Court within 30 days of the order. This appeal isn't a complete retry of your hearing, however. Your attorney will argue that the judge made a specific mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or both in your appeal. Appeals are difficult to obtain. Your best chance of successfully knocking down a PFA is to mount an aggressive defense at the final hearing for the PFA. You should hire an attorney as soon as you know about a PFA filed against you.
Violating a PFA Order
A protection from abuse order is a civil violation. However, violating a PFA order is a criminal offense. If you violate the PFA, even inadvertently, the police can arrest you. The police don't have to witness you violating the PFA personally. They simply need an accusation they believe is credible from the plaintiff. If found guilty of violating the PFA, or “indirect criminal contempt,” you can find yourself facing up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Even violations of a PFA that you believe were innocent, accidental, or caused by the plaintiff can result in a criminal charge.
Hire an Experienced Attorney
A Protection from Abuse order can have long-lasting consequences on your life, and if you accidentally violate an order, you could find yourself in jail. If you're facing a PFA in a Pennsylvania court, your best defense is to hire an attorney skilled in handling PFA orders and defending domestic violence matters. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience protecting Pennsylvania clients from PFAs and criminal abuse charges. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online. Attorney Lento can help you too.