In Schuylkill County and across Pennsylvania, family violence is a serious issue. As a result, in 1990, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Protection from Abuse Act. Their goal was to protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence from their assailants. As part of the law, legislators created a restraining order process, known as a “Protection from Abuse” order, to give the victims the power to protect themselves. Victims of family violence can request a PFA order from their local Court of Common Pleas to prevent an assailant from contacting them or approaching them or their family. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
PFAs are used to protect victims from abusers who:
- Harms or sexually assaults a child
- Attempts to “or intentionally or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, spousal sexual assault, or involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with or without a deadly weapon”
- Invokes a reasonable fear of injury with a verbal or physical threat or menacing gesture
- Threatens, follows, or stalks someone placing them in reasonable fear of injury
PFAs don't typically cover emotional abuse that doesn't come with a reasonable fear of bodily injury.
Filing a PFA in Schuylkill County
In Schuylkill County, plaintiffs can apply for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order at the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
Schuylkill County Courthouse
401 N. Second St.
Pottsville, PA 17901
The phone number for the courthouse is 570-622-5570.
The court typically takes PFA applications Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm. The application process can be long, even if the applicant fills out forms in advance, meaning it can take several hours. While the clerk's office may assist applicants in filling out forms, they cannot offer legal advice. The applicant should be prepared to provide information, including the alleged abuse's date, time, and location.
After filling out the forms, applicants must be physically present in the court to appear before their assigned judge. They will then have an ex parte hearing for a temporary PFA. Whether the judge decides to grant the temporary PFA or not, they will also set a date for a final PFA hearing, which typically occurs within ten days. Before leaving the courthouse, applicants get a copy of the PFA order that they should carry at all times. The Sheriff then notifies the defendant of the temporary PFA order by serving a copy of the petition, a notice of the final hearing, and the order. The Sheriff's office will notify the applicants once they serve the defendant.
For an emergency PFA, applicants can call their local police department and tell them they need to file a PFA while the court is closed. A local magisterial judge on-call will assist, and the police will help facilitate this contact. If the magisterial judge issues an emergency PFA order, it will remain active until the next business day when the court opens.
Recipients of a PFA Order in Schuylkill County
Pennsylvania protection orders aren't typically available for strangers, co-workers, neighbors, and the like. To obtain a PFA in Pennsylvania, the applicant must have a close intimate or family relationship with the defendant. These qualifying relationships include:
- A child of one of the parties,
- A current or former household member or family member,
- Someone the applicant shares a child with,
- A current or former intimate partner,
- A sibling, or
- A current or former spouse.
PFA Process in Schuylkill County
In Schuylkill County, the PFA application process is similar to most other counties in Pennsylvania. The process will include:
- Someone applies for a temporary PFA against you and attends an ex parte hearing with a judge. The hearing is ex parte because you will not be notified or allowed to attend.
- The Sheriff will serve you with the protection order, a copy of the petition, and a notice with a date for the final PFA hearing.
- Both you and the applicant will attend the final PFA hearing before a judge and present your arguments, witnesses, and evidence. The judge will then decide whether to issue a final order and what to include in the PFA.
Temporary Protection from Abuse Order
The PFA application begins when someone files a “petition” at the Schuylkill County Courthouse. The petition must give specifics about the alleged abuse, including the date, time, and place of any alleged abuse. The petitioner must also state why they need protection.
After completing the application, the petitioner will see a judge in an “ex parte” hearing. It is an ex parte hearing because only one party is present. The court won't notify you of the hearing or permit you to attend. The judge may ask the applicant details about their relationship with you and specifics about the abuse allegations. If the judge feels the petitioner does need protection from you, they may issue a temporary protection order.
This temporary Protection from Abuse (PFA) order will only remain in effect until the final PFA hearing date, which typically happens within ten business days of the temporary order. If the judge issues a temporary PFA, the Sheriff's office will serve you with the PFA order, the petition that includes the details of the alleged abuse, and the notice and date of the final PFA hearing.
Final Protection from Abuse Order Hearing
A judge in the Schuylkill County Court of Common Please will make the final ruling on whether to issue a permanent or final PFA against you. You and the plaintiff have the right to appear at and participate in the final hearing. However, if you don't show up, the judge may issue a final PFA after hearing only the petitioner's side of the story (or the judge may issue a bench warrant for your arrest in some instances). A final PFA can remain in place for three years.
At the final PFA hearing, you and your attorney may introduce evidence and witnesses to the court to support your story. The plaintiff will also do this, and your attorney will have the right to cross-examine the plaintiff's witnesses as well as challenge the plaintiff's evidence. However, this process is a formal court hearing and can be difficult to navigate successfully without an attorney. The judge will expect you to comply with the court's rules and the rules of evidence, even if you have no formal legal training. That's why it's essential that you hire an experienced criminal defense attorney with experience handling PFA hearings.
The petitioner must prove to the court “beyond a preponderance of the evidence” that abuse occurred. This standard is easier to meet than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in a criminal domestic violence trial. “A preponderance of the evidence” requires that the plaintiff prove that the abuse more likely happened than not.
Final Protection from Abuse Order in Schuylkill County
If the Schuylkill County judge believes that a final PFA is necessary, they can put one in place for up to three years. This PFA will keep you from contacting or coming near the plaintiff or attending some of the same locations as the plaintiff. If you and the plaintiff have the same place of work or attend the same school, a final PFA can affect your job and your education. The final PFA order may also award temporary or permanent child custody arrangements, order you to provide financial or child support to the plaintiff, pay bills for the plaintiff such as the mortgage or car payment, and direct you to give up any firearms you possess or own.
After the judge issues a final PFA, you must pay the fees incurred for the PFA in the Prothonotary's Office, including the fees for the Sheriff's office service of the order. If you don't pay these fees, the court may turn them over to a collection agency.
Schuylkill PFA Violations
If a judge issues a PFA against you in Pennsylvania, it is a civil order rather than a criminal matter. That means a final PFA order against you won't result in a criminal record. However, when a court enters a PFA against you, whether temporary or final, it ends up in a statewide database. The PFA may not turn up in a standard background check from an employer or a potential landlord, but it will appear in FBI background checks. Additionally, even though a standard background check may not immediately reveal the existence of a PFA, the records related to the case can be obtained by an employer or other party seeking the records simply by requesting the records directly from the court.
Also, although a PFA is a civil issue, it becomes a criminal matter if you violate a PFA, and criminal charges become a matter of public record. If you violate the protective orders in a PFA, the police can arrest you with simply a credible accusation from the plaintiff against you. If found guilty of violating a PFA order, you can face six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. Moreover, if found guilty of violating a PFA, you will have a criminal record for “indirect criminal contempt.” Even inadvertent or accidental violations of a PFA can land you with a criminal record. If you violate the other portions of a PFA, such as the support portions, it is a civil violation, and the plaintiff can enforce them in family court.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney in Schuylkill County
If you've been served with a notice of a final PFA hearing in Schuylkill County, this isn't something you should handle on your own. You need a skilled criminal attorney with extensive experience in Pennsylvania PFA litigation. A final PFA order can have long-lasting effects on your life, your job, your custody arrangements, and where you live. You need the guidance of a professional. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced criminal defense attorney with many years of domestic violence, PFA defense, and criminal defense work in Schuylkill County and throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online.