Across Pennsylvania and in Lancaster County, domestic violence is a serious matter. That's why Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990. The goal of the law was to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence from their abusers. The legislators created a “Protection from Abuse” process to allow victims to obtain a court order protecting them. Victims of abuse can ask a local Court of Common Pleas for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order to prevent an abuser from contacting them or their children. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
An individual can apply for a PFA with:
- Accusations of bodily injury, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, rape, or spousal sexual assault,
- Accusations of being in reasonable fear of injury by a physical or verbal threat or menacing gesture,
- Accusations of the physical or sexual abuse of a child, and
- Accusations of following or threatening someone in a way to place them in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
While the plaintiff may allege this in an application for a PFA, the PFA process allows a defendant to challenge this with evidence and witness testimony in a final PFA hearing.
Filing a PFA in Lancaster County
In Lancaster County, plaintiffs can apply for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order in the Bail Administration Office of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas
50 N. Duke St.
Lancaster, PA 17602
The phone number for the Bail Administration Office is 717-295-3584.
The Bail Administration Office takes PFA applications Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm. The application process can be lengthy and may take several hours to complete. The staff of the Bail Administration Office can assist applicants in filling out the petition, but they cannot provide legal advice. Anyone applying must provide a statement that includes the time, date, and location of the alleged abuse.
Applicants must be present in the courthouse to appear before the assigned judge at 3:00 pm for an ex parte hearing for a temporary PFA. The judge will also set a date for a final PFA hearing, typically within ten days. The judge will set this hearing date even if they decline to issue a temporary PFA. Before leaving the Bail Administration Office, applicants receive a copy of the protection order that they must keep with them at all times. The sheriff will then notify the defendant that the court issued a protection order by serving a copy of the petition, a notice of the final PFA hearing, and the order. The Sheriff’s Department will notify the applicants once they serve the defendant.
If an individual needs an emergency PFA when the office is closed, they should call your local police department and tell them they want to file for a Protection from Abuse order. The police will be able to help them contact the magisterial district judge that is on-call. An Emergency Order is active until the following business day when the court is open again.
Recipients of a PFA Order in Lancaster County
In Pennsylvania, an applicant for a PFA must have an intimate or family relationship with the defendant. Qualifying applicants include:
- A child of a defendant,
- A child of a plaintiff,
- A current or former cohabitant of a defendant,
- A family member related by marriage, affinity, or blood to the defendant,
- The parent of a child with the defendant,
- A current or former intimate partner of the defendant,
- A sibling of the defendant,
- A spouse or former spouse of the defendant.
An applicant can't apply for a protection order against co-workers, classmates, neighbors, or strangers unless they also have a qualifying intimate or family relationship.
PFA Process in Lancaster County
In Lancaster County, the process for obtaining a PFA is similar to most locations in Pennsylvania. The process includes:
- The plaintiff applies for a temporary PFA and attends an ex parte hearing with a judge.
- The sheriff serves the defendant with the protection order, a copy of the petition, and a date for the final PFA hearing.
- Both the plaintiff and the defendant attend and participate in the final hearing before a judge, who then decides whether to issue the final order.
Temporary Protection from Abuse Order
The PFA process begins when a plaintiff files a “petition” with the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas Bail Administration Office. The applicant will need to state why they need protection and give specifics about any alleged abuse. The petitioner usually needs to provide details, including the time, date, and place where the alleged abuse occurred.
After the applicant completes the petition, they will see a judge in an “ex parte” hearing. Ex parte means that the defendant will not be present. The judge may ask some questions about the plaintiff's relationship with the defendant and the alleged abuse. If the judge believes the applicant does need protection, they may issue a temporary protection order.
The temporary Protection from Abuse order remains in place until the hearing date for the final PFA. The final hearing typically happens within ten days of the initial order. If the court issues the temporary PFA, the sheriff's office will serve the defendant with a copy of the order, the petition with the alleged details of the abuse, and a notice of the hearing for the final PFA hearing.
Protection from Abuse Order Hearing
A judge in the Lancaster County Court of Common Please makes the final decision about whether to issue a final PFA, which may remain in place for up to three years. Both the defendant and the plaintiff may participate in this hearing, so if you fail to show up, the judge may issue a final PFA based only on the plaintiff's version of events.
At the hearing, you may introduce witnesses and evidence to the court. The plaintiff will do so as well, and you will have the opportunity to cross-examine the plaintiff's witnesses and challenge the plaintiff's evidence. However, you will need an attorney to navigate this hearing successfully. It will be a formal hearing in open court, following the Pennsylvania rules of evidence and the local court's procedural rules.
The plaintiff must prove that abuse occurred by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This standard is lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard you would face in a criminal trial for domestic violence or abuse and requires only that the plaintiff prove the abuse more likely happened than not.
Final Protection from Abuse Order
If the Lancaster County court decides to issue the final PFA, it can remain in place for up to three years. The court's order will prevent you from communicating with or approaching the plaintiff. It may also prevent you from going to places like the plaintiff's place of work, home, or school. The order can also temporarily modify child custody, order you to pay rent or the mortgage or provide other financial support, and order you to surrender any firearms you may have.
After a court issues a final PFA, you must pay the fees for the PFA in the Prothonotary's Office and the service of the order to the Sherriff's Office. If you fail to pay the fees, the Prothonotary’s and Sherriff’s Offices will turn them over to a collection agency.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney in Lancaster County
If you're facing a final hearing for a PFA in Lancaster County, you need a criminal defense attorney with PFA experience by your side. A Protection from Abuse order can impact custody of your children, the financial support you must pay, where you can live, and even your job. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney with years of PFA, domestic violence, and criminal defense work throughout the state. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online.