Representing Plaintiffs in PFA Cases

Filing a protective order can be scary — there is so much direction out there that it's hard even to know where to begin. If you are concerned about the safety of yourself or a loved one and are looking to file a Protection From Abuse (PFA) in the state of Pennsylvania, then this article is for you. We will walk you through the steps of what it entails to get a proper PFA in place and will also offer background information about what often leads to the filing of a PFA. We will also provide insights on what to expect in your PFA hearing and how you can best set yourself up for success.

What is a PFA?

A PFA stands for a Protection from Abuse order. While it is commonly called a PFA in Pennsylvania, in other states and jurisdictions, you may just hear it referred to as a “restraining order” (restraining order also seems to be the preferred phrase among Hollywood films and the common vernacular). The rules for Protection from Abuse orders in Pennsylvania are set out by what is known as the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act. This act explains who is eligible for applying for a PFA, the courts and law enforcement's response, and how to obtain a PFA.

Is a PFA the Same Thing as a Restraining Order?

While it is not entirely wrong to use the term PFA and restraining order interchangeably, PFA is what you will find in PA law. A PFA brings protection and relief for one who is the recipient of abuse at the hands of a familial connection. It is a type of restraining order as it legally orders someone to stop or modify various behaviors. The PFA discussed in this article is unique to Pennsylvania, though it can be enforced across the country under federal law.

Why Apply for a PFA?

The most common reason for applying for a PFA is protection against domestic violence. Most Protection From Abuse applicants are victims of some form of abuse, whether it be physical, sexual, or verbal.

Pennsylvania maintains its own legal definition of domestic abuse. The law clearly states that domestic abuse occurs when one (or more) of the following instances happens within the household:

  • A family member attempts to intentionally, knowingly cause bodily injury, rape, sexual assault, indecent assault
  • An individual is in “reasonable fear” of “imminent serious bodily injury”
  • The infliction of false imprisonment
  • Physical or sexual abuse of minors
  • An individual is being followed against their will and placed in reasonable fear of bodily injury

Who Can Apply for a PFA?

As mentioned earlier, a PFA can only be used against a domestic partner or relative. This can include same-sex and opposite-sex partners (married or not), children, ex-partners, parents, siblings, and other blood relatives. It does not cover individuals who may have other domestic arrangements, such as platonic roommates. All PFA applicants must be at least 18 years of age. Applicants who are not at least 18 years old will require an adult to file the petition on their behalf.

Does a PFA Create a Criminal Court Case?

A Protection From Abuse order does not automatically create a court case against the accused. However, it can lead to the filing of criminal charges, and it can be used as a protective tool while you are in the process of filing criminal charges. Depending on the situation, the individual who files the PFA petition may also seek criminal charges.

How Long Does a PFA Last?

The length of time that a Protection From Abuse order lasts will depend on the particular kind of order. Here are the three different types of PFAs available in Pennsylvania:

Ex Parte Temporary

If a judge determines that your minor children are in imminent danger, they will grant you an ex parte temporary PFA. This protection is immediate, meaning that it does not require the other party to present in court. This order is temporary and will last until your court date (usually held within ten business days).

If the abuser has access to a gun or other deadly weapon, this order may also require that they relinquish this weapon.

Emergency Order

There may be some instances in which you seek a PFA while the courts are closed. The most common examples of this are during the weekend, late at night, or during a statutory holiday. If you find yourself in imminent danger during these times, you may still be able to obtain a protective order. There is no need to wait until the courts open. You can start by calling your local law enforcement department, which will then direct you to the on-call judge for your district. If you are determined to be in immediate danger, the judge will grant an emergency order. These orders usually have a short lifespan as they are just designed to keep you safe until the filing of the proper order.

Final PFA

Your court hearing will determine the outcome of your final PFA. This is your opportunity to tell your side of the story and convince the judge that you or your loved one is in danger and would benefit from a protective order. You must bring all the supporting materials that you can find, including all types of evidence and even witnesses who can provide a statement. This is where a lawyer can help.

A final PFA can last for a maximum total of three years. In some cases, a shorter order of one or two years may be agreed upon by the parties and their attorneys or decided upon by the court.

What Can a PFA Do?

As its name would suggest, the purpose of a Protection From Abuse order is to protect you from harm. One way it can do this is by requiring the recipient to vacate the premises (if you share a residence) or stop contacting you altogether. A PFA can also force the recipient to take specific actions, such as attending treatment (for substance abuse, mental issues, etc.) and paying child support.

A PFA can also lead to the dissolution of child custody arrangements. In some cases, the recipient of a PFA order may be required to give up their firearms. A PFA may also lead to a party losing their visitation rights, or pay moving costs, legal costs, and medical bills, among other expenses.

Does a PFA Show Up on a Criminal Record?

In Pennsylvania, a PFA will not show up on the criminal record of the defendant, but it may show up on the civil record of both the plaintiff and the defendant. This is because PFAs in Pennsylvania come from the civil court and not the criminal court.

So, whether or not a background check will show a PFA will depend on the kind of background check, as some employers and schools may order different background checks depending on the situation. Expunging a PFA from a record may be possible in some cases but is generally not easy.

Is a PFA Right for Me?

The purpose of a PFA is to protect you from abuse at the hands of an individual with whom you are involved in a domestic partnership (i.e., somebody that you live with.) While a PFA is helpful for people in these situations, it means that those looking for a restraining order from somebody outside of their household will have to look elsewhere.

What if the Defendant Files Criminal Charges Against Me?

In some cases, a defendant may accuse the victim of criminal behavior as a form of retaliation for the PFA. A respondent may attempt to manipulate the victim by threatening to provide evidence of criminal acts to the court. This is one reason working with a skilled attorney to file your PFA is a good idea.

What Happens if the Defendant Files a PFA Against Me?

In some cases, a defendant may also file a PFA against the plaintiff. This is known as a cross-complaint or cross-petition. If this happens, both parties will have an opportunity to have their pleas for relief heard, either simultaneously or at different dates. It is possible for both Protection From Abuse orders to be enacted—this is known as "mutual orders of protection".

What are the Alternatives to a PFA?

If the PFA isn't the right step for you, there are still other options that you can take to protect yourself. There are a total of three different types of protective orders that you can file in Pennsylvania. Here are the other two:

PFIO

The PFIO, or Protection from Intimidation Order, is for people who have not yet reached the age of majority. If you or your loved one is less than 18 years of age, this order can protect them from any adult (could be a teacher, coach, or even a stranger).

SVPO

SVPO stands for Sexual Violence Protection Order. This protective order can be filed against both familial and non-familial relations. It is designed to protect victims of sexual violence.

How to File a PFA in Pennsylvania

When filing a petition for a PFA in Pennsylvania, you must file in the county where the abuse occurred. You may also be able to file it in the county where your abuser lives or works. However, there is one important geographical caveat: if you are looking to get your abuser removed from a home that you share, you must file the petition in the county where the home is located. As you can see, there are a variety of requirements, which is why having a lawyer by your side is critical.

If your abuser lives in a different state, it may make things more complicated. If the abuse occurred in Pennsylvania, your local judge will have the jurisdiction to file the order. However, if the defendant lives out-of-state, it may be difficult to serve them—an attorney can help you with this. It's wise to involve an attorney as early as possible to ensure you can navigate the process smoothly.

Step 1: Gather Proper Paperwork

You can pick up the required paperwork for a PFA at your local courthouse. If you are unsure of which forms you need, the courthouse clerk may be able to assist you. Although they may be able to assist you in filing the paperwork, they cannot offer any kind of legal advice.

Step 2: Fill Out The Paperwork

Of course, when you have obtained the proper paperwork, you will need to ensure that it is filled out correctly. It is a good idea to have an attorney help you at this stage. When filling out the forms, try to give as much detail as possible, including how the abuser's behavior affects you and puts you at risk.

The proper filling out of forms is not a task that should be taken lightly. If the plaintiff is not careful, they may omit important information that can help them in obtaining their Protection From Abuse order. Presenting your evidence in a compelling way through the initial paperwork is the best way to set yourself up for success throughout the entire PFA process.

Step 3: Petition Review

When you have submitted your forms, a judge will review them, and you will be given the task of testifying in court. They will then determine whether you are in immediate danger and if you are in immediate danger, the judge will grant a temporary PFA. Remember, this is not your full PFA — instead, it is just intended to keep you safe until the hearing, when the details of the final PFA will be determined.

After your PFA is filed, you will receive a copy of the forms for yourself and the sheriff. You will need to give the forms to the sheriff so that they can serve the other party with the forms. It will usually be the sheriff who serves the other party with the emergency PFA, though this may vary based on county.

Step 4: PFA Hearing

Once you file your petition for a PFA, you will receive a court date for your final PFA hearing. This usually happens within ten business days of the petition filing.

Your hearing will take place in front of the judge. You must attend it in person. If you can't attend the court date, you must advise the court as soon as possible. If the abuser does not show up in court, a final PFA may still be filed in their absence, and generally is. However, in rare instances, a judge may prefer to delay the hearing so that the abuser can attend and adequately defend themselves. If this happens, your temporary PFA should be extended.

How is the Respondent Notified of the PFA?

This is one of the more confusing parts of filing for a PFA in Pennsylvania. Once a petition of a PFA is filed, it is required that the defendant be notified. However, the petition filer can't be the one to inform the defendant. Instead, they will usually be notified by a police officer or sheriff, although they can be technically notified by anyone over 18.

What to Expect at a PFA Hearing

Most PFA hearings will take place within ten days of the filing of the PFA petition. While the hearing will require that you and your abuser be present in the same room, the no-contact order will still need to be followed. This means that your abuser cannot come near you at the time of the hearing. Emergency and temporary filings will almost never occur with your abuser present. It is more common for them to be present at the final hearing.

The PFA hearing is your opportunity to prevent all evidence against your abuser. You can bring witnesses with you who can help testify to the abuse that you have suffered.

If you cannot find a lawyer before your hearing, you have the right to ask the court for what is known as a “continuance.” This will grant you a later court date so that you can have more time for a lawyer. The judge should extend your emergency or temporary order until this new court date.

How Long Does a Final PFA Last?

The maximum length for a final PFA order is three years. However, this can be extended if a judge determines that you or your children are in further danger.

How Much Does a PFA Cost?

In Pennsylvania, there is no cost associated with filing a petition for a PFA. In some cases, a plaintiff may be able to request that the defendant pay court fees as a condition of the PFA.

What Happens if a PFA is Violated?

If somebody violates a PFA, they can be placed under arrest and found in contempt of court. The penalty jail time of up to six months, as well as a fine of up to $1,000.

A common misconception is that a PFA only prevents an abuser from saying threatening or life-threatening things. A PFA in most instances, however, is an all-encompassing no-contact order which means that any communication at all would be seen as a violation of the order, no matter the context.

A message sent from an abuser through a third party is also considered a violation. This includes having a friend or a family member relay a message on behalf of an abuser. If you have a PFA and are contacted in any way by your abuser, you can contact the emergency services for immediate action.

What Happens If I Move Out of State?

You may wonder what will happen if you move out of state while there is a PFA against your abuser. Will you still be protected?

In short, yes. Your PFA can still protect you even if you move out of state. This is because the country-wide Violence Against Women Act allows all PFA orders to be enforceable across all jurisdictions in the United States. If you want confirmation that your order qualifies for this enforcement, check with your courthouse. One thing to be aware of is that if you move states, you will then be susceptible to the laws of your new territory. This means that if your abuser violates the order while in your new location, they will be subject to the local laws of your new state.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Obtain a PFA?

It is a good idea to file a Protection From Abuse order with an attorney's assistance. For one thing, the defendant is likely to have an attorney for themselves, and you do not want to find yourself outmatched in the courtroom.

Although it is relatively simple to file the forms for a PFA petition, any small error can interrupt the process and make results harder to achieve. A small error can have serious effects, therefore. In addition to other potential concerns, because you will be challenged by the defendant and the defendant's attorney at the time of the final hearing, it is critical that the initial filing be done properly and that the basis for the requested relief be supported as strongly as possible. The best way to protect yourself and your family is by finding a skilled lawyer who can navigate the system on your behalf.

A PFA hearing is stressful, but you must put your best foot forward. The outcome of the PFA hearing will affect your life for years to come. You have the right to a lawyer at your PFA hearing, and it is recommended that you bring one. They will be able to fight for you at this time when you need it most.

Expertise That Works For You

Joseph D. Lento is a renowned attorney who understands the ins and outs of the process of obtaining a Protection From Abuse order in Pennsylvania. Week after week, attorney Joseph D. Lento uses his experience to help Pennsylvania plaintiffs obtain safety and protection. Allow Joseph D. Lento's thorough knowledge of the justice system to help you get the peace of mind that you are seeking. If you are currently seeking a protective order against someone else and want help from a knowledgeable professional with years of experience, get in touch with us today by contacting the Lento Law Firm or calling us at 888-535-3686.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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