Much of the communication we have with others or about others happens electronically in this day and age. Whether it's email, texting, message apps, or social media platforms, communicating online is a way of life. But what happens if the police serve you with a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order that forbids you from contacting someone? How do you navigate your online life in the face of these restrictions? This article will discuss what you should do after receiving a PFA and how you should protect yourself online and on social media.
What is a Protection from Abuse Order?
A Protection from Abuse (PFA) order is a court order protecting victims of domestic violence, stalking, harassment, and sexual assault. Protection from Abuse orders for domestic violence are also sometimes called restraining orders or protection orders. They are the most common form of PFAs in Pennsylvania. A 1990 Pennsylvania law known as the Protection from Abuse Act contains the procedures for issuing a PFA, court and police policies, and the rules and regulations both parties to a PFA action must follow. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6101, et seq. (2018).
Courts will issue PFAs to protect abuse victims from further violence, harassment, stalking, and physical intimidation from a family member or intimate partner. However, PFA applicants must meet all the requirements of the Protection from Abuse Act.
How Does Someone Obtain a PFA Against Me?
Only someone with an intimate relationship or a family relationship can apply for a PFA against you. Relationships that qualify under the statute include:
- Current or former intimate or sexual partners,
- Current spouse or former spouse,
- Your parent or child,
- Same-sex couples,
- Someone who lived with you as a spouse or currently does,
- Someone related to you by blood or by marriage,
- Your brother or sister, or
- Someone with whom you have a child.
Protection from Abuse orders aren't available for neighbors, friends, classmates, co-workers, or strangers. Moreover, the applicant must be at least 18, or a parent or guardian must file for a PFA for them.
Grounds for a Protection from Abuse Order
The legislature created Protection from Abuse orders to protect current and former intimate partners or family members from domestic violence. So, an applicant must show a qualifying domestic relationship under the statute and that domestic violence happened between the parties. Pennsylvania defines domestic violence as:
- Putting another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
- Physical or sexual abuse of a minor.
- Engaging in a repeated course of conduct that puts someone in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
- Causing or attempting to cause, whether with or without a deadly weapon:
- Sexual assault
- Bodily injury
- Serious bodily injury
- Statutory sexual assault
- Indecent assault
Pennsylvania crimes that may also be considered domestic violence include sexual assault, harassment, assault, kidnapping, theft, stalking, burglary, and more. See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6102(a) (2018).
The Protection from Abuse Process
Obtaining a PFA in Pennsylvania involves three basic steps:
- The plaintiff applies for a temporary PFA from a judge in an ex parte hearing.
- The police serve the defendant with a temporary PFA and a notice of a hearing for the final PFA.
- Both parties may participate in a hearing where the judge rules on issuances of the final PFA order.
1. Temporary Protection from Abuse Order
If the police serve you with a PFA for the first time, it will usually be a temporary order, along with a notice of a hearing for a final PFA. The judge grants a temporary PFA in an ex parte hearing, and you don't have the right to be present. The temporary PFA will usually contain restrictions preventing you from approaching or contacting the plaintiff and sets a date for a final hearing. The hearing for your final PFA will typically take place within ten days.
2. Protection from Abuse Order Hearing
Your final PFA hearing will take place in a formal court hearing before a judge. You will have the opportunity to testify and tell the judge your story. You and your attorney can also introduce evidence and witnesses and cross-examine any of the plaintiff's witnesses, including the plaintiff. If you testify, the plaintiff's attorney can also cross-examine you.
During the final PFA hearing, the plaintiff must show both that you have a qualifying domestic relationship under the statute and that you committed an act of domestic violence. The plaintiff will need to prove these elements to the judge by a preponderance of the evidence.
3. Final Protection from Abuse Order
If the court decide to issue the final PFA, it will contain some provisions prohibiting you from contacting the plaintiff, including via social media or other online communication. The order can remain in effect for up to three years. The final PFA may also remove you from a shared home, award financial support, award temporary child custody, and order the police to confiscate any weapons you own.
Penalties for Violating a PFA
A Protection from Abuse matter is a civil action but violating a PFA is contempt of a court order, a criminal offense. Violating any provision of a PFA, no matter how minor, can lead to your arrest and a criminal conviction. The police can arrest you if they believe an accusation from the plaintiff that you've violated a PFA is credible. If the court convicts you of violating a PFA, you can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. You'll also have a criminal record for “indirect criminal contempt.”
Even a violation that is inadvertent or that you believe is minor can lead to your arrest. For example, if your PFA forbids you from contacting the plaintiff, and you comment on a photo they post on Instagram, that could be a violation of your PFA. Violating other provisions of a PFA, such as those ordering you to pay support or rent, would be a civil matter, and the plaintiff must enforce those in family court.
How Do I Protect Myself if a PFA is in Place?
Judges have broad discretion concerning what they can include in a final PFA. Thus, the court will customize each PFA based on the facts and circumstances of the case. But most PFA orders will prevent you from contacting the plaintiff in person, by mail, or online, including contacting the plaintiff via social media, text, messaging, or email. The order will also usually prevent you from approaching the plaintiff's home, work, school, or other places they frequent. See Pa. Stat. 23 § 6108 (2018).
As part of a PFA, the court can also order you to refrain from stalking or harassing the plaintiff or their friends and family.
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. at (9). This prohibition includes online stalking or harassment. Because the definitions of stalking and harassment can be quite broad, it's often best to avoid contacting the plaintiff or the plaintiff's family and friends entirely.
While under PFA restrictions, it's important to ensure that your online activity fully complies with the court order. If you have a blog or Vlog where you discuss your personal life, you should take it down or stop discussing any personal matters that even remotely touch on the plaintiff or their family or friends. Even if you don't mention them by name, it could be a violation of the order.
Don't email the plaintiff or any of their family or friends. Don't text any of them unless you are permitted to do so for specific exceptions, like arranging child visitation. If you do text or message via an exception, be sure to keep all messages calm and neutral. You can have your attorney read your messages before sending them to ensure you don't unintentionally cross a line. If you use a messaging app, even if you have an anonymous account, do not message or contact the plaintiff or their friends or family.
Social Media Activity
Keeping to the terms of a PFA can often be difficult on social media accounts. You and the plaintiff may have had intertwined lives with many friends online and offline in common. You may belong to the same small, online groups, particularly those with only “locals” in them. Whether you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or other popular social media accounts, it's a good idea to scrub your contact and friends lists to ensure you don't have the plaintiff or their friends and family on your list.
It's also a good idea to keep all of your accounts and posts private, not set to public, to ensure that the plaintiff and her friends and family can't see your posts. Even if you've scrubbed your contacts and your posts, you must be extremely careful about what you post. You may have friends passing the plaintiff information and screenshots. You should also refrain from looking at the plaintiff's social media accounts, even if they're public. An inadvertent “like” on a photo could be a violation of the PFA. The best option for some social media accounts may be to block the plaintiff or to shut down or temporarily deactivate your account.
Necessary Communication Concerning Children
In many cases, the court will allow necessary communication between the plaintiff and the defendant about children they share. For example, parents often need to discuss their kids' health matters, education, activities, general welfare, and arranging exchanges for parental visitation. In many cases, the court will allow you and your co-parent to agree to a neutral third party through which communication can happen. This contact person could be an attorney, friend, or family member, but the idea is to ensure transparency when co-parents can't communicate without acrimony and accusations.
Some applications can facilitate safe, open communication with a co-parent, even if a PFA is in place. These apps include:
- Our Family Wizard: This app contains a calendar, message board, expense log, journal, and a “ToneMeter,” which is like an emotional spell-check. The app flags emotionally charged messages.
- Talking Parents: This app contains a shared calendar, allows you to upload shared files and documents, and the app records when each item is entered or edited and when a parent reads the notification. The unalterable records and editing log are big pluses.
- 2Houses: 2Houses offers a shared calendar, finance tracker, information bank, and journal.
- coParenter: This app has non-editable messaging with timestamps, a tone meter, live coaching, and a “solo” function when only one parent signs up for the app.
- Co Parently: Co Parently offers a custody calendar, messaging, and an expense tracker. The messaging function also allows adding third parties to logistical and scheduling messages while keeping co-parenting communication confidential.
- Cozi: This app offers a shared calendar and consolidated lists. While this is a family planner not specifically designed for co-parents not living in the same household, it's a good tool for coordinating complex schedules.
- Google Sheets & Calendar: Google's tools offer a good DIY option for coordinating shared schedules, expenses, and other information.
If you need to communicate with the plaintiff regarding your children, follow the PFA strictly. Please read the provisions carefully and discuss them with your attorney to ensure you are complying with the letter and spirit of the PFA. When communicating about your kids, whether directly with the plaintiff or through an app or third party, keep it professional. Pretend this is a business relationship and remain as calm and neutral as possible. You should also document your communication if the plaintiff accused you of inappropriate communication or harassment in the past.
Hire an Experienced Protection from Abuse Attorney in Pennsylvania
If you're facing a PFA against you, it can have serious long-term consequences on your personal and professional life. You should have the guidance of an experienced litigator well-versed in defending clients from PFA orders. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience in family law, domestic violence, criminal defense, and PFA defense throughout Pennsylvania. He can also help you. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-536-3686 or contact them online.