Getting hit with a PFA order in Pennsylvania is a life-changing event. Anyone who has this type of order filed against them is most likely confused and scared, and they're probably nervous about what it means for them in the short term, as well as what it will most likely mean for them in the long term. If there's a PFA or a temporary PFA filed against you, the most important thing that you need to understand is that a PFA order is as serious as it seems, and you need to treat it as such.
PFAs can have an extremely long-lasting and damaging impact on someone's life, affecting everything from their schooling to their jobs and career choices to their interpersonal relationships. Violating a PFA order by texting the petitioner can get you into even more trouble.
What is a PFA?
The acronym PFA stands for “protection from abuse.” A PFA order is an order signed by a judge that provides civil legal protection for victims of domestic violence by a family member, a household member, or an intimate partner. Abuse could mean anything from the threat of physical injury to actual bodily harm.
In Pennsylvania, what constitutes abuse includes but is not limited to the following:
- bodily injury or serious bodily injury
- sexual assault
- aggravated indecent assault
- bodily injury or serious bodily injury
- false imprisonment
- engaging in a way or repeatedly committing acts towards another person which cause the person to fear for their lives
Who can file a petition for a PFA?
Adults 18 and over or emancipated minors can seek protection from abuse by filing for PFAs. The list below is not exhaustive, but it serves to give you an idea of the people who can file for these types of orders.
- People can file for a PFA against a spouse or a former spouse.
- People can file a PFA against someone they share a child with even if they don't live together.
- People can file a PFA against someone they live with as a couple. This is true whether the couple have any children together or not.
- People can file PFAs against someone they date or used to date. The length of time the relationship lasted is immaterial.
What happens when someone files a PFA?
When victims seek a PFA, they're given a temporary PFA, “ex parte” PFA , or permanent PFA order.
Courts issue temporary PFAs during holidays or weekends when courts aren't open. In these cases, the petitioner would contact their local police station or a district justice office. Temporary PFAs remain active until the petitioner goes before a judge. At that point, the temporary PFA expires.
Ex Parte PFA
An “ex parte” temporary PFA is another type of temporary order. These types of PFAS are usually issued in circumstances when the judge feels that the likelihood of danger to the victim is high and there isn't time to wait to get the defendant into court. The judge will issue the ex parte temporary PFA order without the defendant present. The ex parte PFA order will stay in place until a hearing takes place with the defendant present. Ex parte PFA's last up to 15 days or until a hearing where the defendant is present. This date is sometimes extended up to 30 days in order to make sure that the court is able to properly serve the defendant or because one of the parties may have requested a postponement.
Judges issue final PFAs at the scheduled hearing.
Courts issue the final PFA at the scheduled hearing. At that hearing, the defendant gets the option to defend themselves against the allegations made by the victim, after which the court will make a decision. Final PFA orders last up to three years or longer depending on any subsequent issues surrounding the case, including violations of the PFA order on the part of the defendant.
What are you prevented from doing with a PFA?
Courts issue PFA orders to protect the victims from any further abuse. They write them in such a way that prevents the defendant from having any contact with the victim.
PFA orders may vary from case to case, but generally, the defendant will have to follow rules like the following.
- The defendant must refrain from further abusing the victim.
- They may need to surrender their firearms, deadly weapons, or ammunition.
- They may need to undergo counseling.
- They may need to undergo some sort of treatment or relief that may prevent future violence from happening.
- Temporary custody may go to the victim if there is a child involved.
- The court may allow the petitioner full use of the home, in which case the defendant will have to move out.
- The respondent must refrain from contacting the victim in any way, including via phone, email, text, social media, and any other type of electronic communication.
- They may need to stay away at least 100 yards from where the petitioner lives, works, goes to school.
What happens when respondents ignore the text messaging rule?
Text and email are the way the world spins today. It's almost a reflex to pick up your phone and shoot someone a text or email about everything from picking up laundry to confirming the price of something. People text and email people more than they speak with them on the phone.
One of the distinct rules of a PFA order is “no texting.” Because it's second nature to do so for so many people, the respondent may pick up a phone and text the petitioner without even thinking. They may think that their reasons for doing so are completely innocuous and even friendly.
Maybe they want to figure out how they should send the petitioner money, or they think that they'll be doing something nice by wishing the petitioner a happy birthday. What they may not realize is that these are the very types of activities that can get them into even more serious trouble.
PFAs are extremely and explicitly clear when it comes to forbidding the respondent to reach out to or contact the petitioner in any way.
You must follow the rules of the PFA order to the letter.
If you're the respondent in a PFA order, you must follow the rules down to the letter. Even with the best of intentions, a text message could be seen as threatening or ominous. It is not about how the respondent intended it but instead how the petitioner received it or the fact that they received it at all. If the petitioner felt threatened in any way, you as the respondent can get into much more trouble.
If there are any questions regarding what you can or can't do with a PFA order, your attorney can answer them for you. This is why it is absolutely critical that you have an attorney by your side who understands the PFA process and can give you the advice you need.
For the most part, with a PFA, no means no. If there are exceptions, the court will have them written into the PFA.
Why is it so important that you strictly abide by the terms of a PFA?
Violating a PFA order in Pennsylvania is a misdemeanor offense. You may be thinking, “Well, it's just a misdemeanor.” There's nothing minor about misdemeanors. People often think this because they're comparing them to felonies. Relatively speaking, they may not be as “serious” as a felony, but a misdemeanor conviction can still wreak havoc on your life.
Misdemeanor offenses like these usually carry penalties of possible jail time and fines levied against you. The penalties that you receive will depend on the circumstances of the violation.
Some of the other ways that a misdemeanor PFA violation can affect your life include the following:
- Immediate fallout from a PFA violation could involve the victim asking the court to extend the PFA. When you violate a PFA, you may be held in contempt of court. If that happens, you may forfeit your right to a jury trial. You'll still have the right to legal counsel, but at this point, the damage has already been done.
- If you are dealing with other criminal or civil cases, violating your PFA could put your standing in those cases in jeopardy. By violating the PFA, you're essentially showing the court that you have no intention of following through with their rules. This could hurt you in much bigger ways.
- It can limit your ability to see your loved ones.
- It could limit your ability to move ahead in school or in your chosen career.
Reach out for help.
Violating a PFA order has serious consequences. The fallout can affect every single aspect of your life. It's absolutely critical that you have an attorney/advisor on your side who can walk you through every step of the process so that you can make a decision regarding next steps. Doing anything less could change the course of your life forever. Reach out to Pennsylvania attorney Joseph D. Lento at 888-535-3686 for more information.