Accusations of domestic abuse lead to legal complications for the alleged offender, no doubt about it. They may face criminal charges or receive a Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order or both. Both outcomes provide protections for the alleged victim, but the two paths are very different from one another.
If you are accused of domestic violence, or are the victim of it, you should reach out to a skilled attorney for guidance. Domestic and family issues can be emotional and quickly get out of control, and it is essential to have a knowledgeable, experienced advocate to guide you.
Pennsylvania's Protection From Abuse Act
Under the Pennsylvania Protection From Abuse Act, alleged victims of domestic abuse can seek protection from the alleged abuser. The PFA law only applies to people who suffer abuse from a family member or partner. Victims of workplace, stranger, or other violence have different avenues to seek legal remedies but cannot pursue a PFA.
Types of PFA
In Pennsylvania, three types of PFA orders exist to protect victims. A PFA is like a restraining order, and the type of PFA ordered by a judge will depend on the unique circumstances of the abuse alleged.
Ex Parte Temporary PFA
Ex parte is a legal term meaning only one party needs to speak with a judge. In this case, the alleged victim could bring a case before a judge without the alleged offender present. If the judge believes the accusations, they can issue an ex parte temporary PFA, which will last until a full hearing with both parties present. That hearing must occur within ten days of the ex parte temporary PFA. During that period, the respondent must comply with the orders outlined in the PFA, which may include leaving a shared home and not contacting the victim.
While it may seem that ex parte orders violate the respondent's right to be heard, the court weighs the need to protect the alleged victim from further abuse against the alleged offender's rights—at least for the first few days. At the "final" hearing, both parties will get the chance to tell their side of the story.
Emergency Order PFA
A judge can grant an emergency order PFA in extreme circumstances and after court hours. An alleged victim may call 911, explain their situation, and speak with an on-call judge. The complainant can state why they feel they are in danger and, if the judge agrees there is a threat, they may grant an emergency order PFA.
An emergency order PFA is only good until the close of business on the next business day that courts are open. If the alleged victim still feels they are in danger, they may petition the court for an ex parte temporary PFA when the court is open.
Courts may order a final PFA only after a hearing where both parties have the opportunity to speak. During this hearing, the judge reviews both parties' testimony and any evidence in the case.
If granted, a final PFA can remain in effect for up to three years. At its expiration, the complainant has the option to request an extension if they feel they still face danger.
How a PFA Works
A PFA attempts to protect victims by legally limiting certain freedoms of the respondents. If the respondent violates the provisions of the PFA, they can end up in significant legal trouble.
Under most PFA orders, offenders cannot:
- Contact the alleged accuser at all
- Visit children if they fall under the PFA
- Harass, harm, or threaten the alleged accuser
- Live at the same location as the alleged accuser
- Buy a gun
In addition to restricting behaviors, PFAs can also contain other requirements. These could include:
- The payment of the victim's medical bills
- Additional child support payments
- Paying relocation expenses for the complainant
- Terms of child custody and visitation
- Payment of the accuser's attorney's fees
Violating a PFA can result in criminal contempt of court charges, which can result in heavy fines or even jail time.
Pennsylvania PFAs are valid and inforcable nationwide. So even if one party moves out of state, the PFA order still stands and much be complied with.
Who can File a PFA and When
Under Pennsylvania law, only the following people can seek a PFA against another person:
- Family or household members
- Sexual or intimate partners
- Biological siblings
The law continues to outline situations that might allow a person to seek a PFA against an alleged offender:
- Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon
- Placing another person in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury
- The infliction of false imprisonment
- Physically or sexually abusing minor children
- Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances that place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury
Negotiating a PFA
This might sound odd, but an alleged offender can attempt to negotiate the potential terms of a PFA. They can avoid a hearing and a judge determining the restrictions under a PFA by negotiating those terms, through their lawyer, with the other side.
Negotiating the terms of a PFA can benefit an alleged offender by giving them some control over the potential restrictions placed on them. Part of the negotiating may include not admitting to any wrongdoing, but simply agreeing to certain terms and restrictions under the PFA. If a negotiated resolution is effectuated, the realistic best case scenario would often involve the defendant agreeing to a continued temporary order which can vary in length, for example, from as short as three months to a year or longer. This is sometimes referred to as a "cooling-off period" and will be regularly entertained by the judge if handled effectively.
A defendant's attorney can also try to negotiate other terms related to the temporary PFA that would make the continued temporary PFA more favorable from the standpoinf of the defendant. Such matters that can be negotiated, for example, may include housing issues, such as where the parties will be residing and who may be responsible for the lease, rent, or household expenses during the pendency of the temporary order; provisional or even long-term custody agreements when the parties have a child or children together; and so forth. There are several benefits to having an experienced attorney negotiate the resolution to your case.
Resolutions of the above nature can help keep an alleged offender's record clean, with the ability to seek an expungement of the PFA case and all associated records as long as the temporary order does not become a final order and subject to other considerations. If such a resolution is achieved, however, the defendant ust ensure that they do not violate the PFA as that could still result in criminal charges or can prompt the plaintiff to again seek a final PFA.
Violating a PFA, even unintentionally, can result in criminal charges, most likely criminal contempt. This can mean up to six months in jail and fines up to $1000. All of this on top of having a criminal charge on their record that could create problems for getting a job, moving, and going about their daily life.
Besides criminal charges for violating a PFA, the alleged offender may also face criminal charges for the incident which gave rise to the PFA order. A criminal conviction can actually hurt the outcome of a PFA because a conviction gives weight to the alleged accuser's accusation that they are still in danger. In that instance, a judge could easily justify extending a PFA.
Criminal Charge Penalties
The penalties for a criminal conviction vary based on the crime. Certain domestic violence crimes are misdemeanors, while others are felonies. While law traditionally defines a misdemeanor as a crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a felony is any crime punishable by a year or more in prison, Pennsylvania law punishes higher degree misdemeanors by up to five years in prison.
Depending on the domestic crime charged, the severity of the crime, the alleged offender's criminal history, and their lawyer's ability to negotiate with the prosecutor, they could face the following criminal penalties for domestic violence in Pennsylvania:
Third Degree Misdemeanor
Conviction on a third degree misdemeanor could result in a maximum fine of $2500 and up to one year in jail.
Second Degree Misdemeanor
Conviction on a second degree misdemeanor could result in a maximum fine of $5000 and up to two years in prison.
First Degree Misdemeanor
Conviction on a first degree misdemeanor could result in a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to five years in prison.
Third Degree Felony
Conviction on a third degree felony could result in a maximum fine of $15,000 and up to seven years in prison.
Second Degree Felony
Conviction on a second degree felony could result in a maximum fine of $25,000 and up to ten years in prison.
First Degree Felony
Conviction on a first degree felony could result in a maximum fine of $25,000 and up to 20 years in prison.
Defenses to Criminal Charges
To combat criminal charges against an alleged offender, they have options for their defense. The most obvious defense is that the allegations against them are simply untrue. Proving this will require powerful evidence to support the claim that they did not commit the crimes alleged. The alleged offender may even have to show that someone else committed the crime.
The alleged offender could also argue that the injuries suffered by the alleged accuser were accidental. Especially in familial situations, accidents happen so if they can show that the injuries suffered by the alleged accuser were purely accidental, a person may have a shot at overcoming the criminal charge.
Another defense could be self-defense. If the alleged accuser attacked the alleged offender first, they have a right to protect themselves and respond with actions that could help keep them safe, even if they injure the other person.
Each of the possible defenses to a criminal charge will require substantial evidence. An alleged offender's attorney can help collect that evidence and mount a vigorous defense to the criminal charges faced.
PFA Versus Criminal Charge
We know that a PFA and criminal charges can go hand in hand. We also know that criminal charges can result from a PFA violation. Now let's look at major differences between these two legal paths.
A PFA is a Civil Case
There are civil court cases and criminal court cases. A PFA is a civil case. This means that the standard of proof is much lower, called a preponderance of the evidence.
In a civil case, the judge looks to see whether the alleged accuser's allegations are more likely than not to have occurred. That is a low standard. That's why having a trusted attorney advocate on an alleged offender's behalf can help overcome this challenge and keep this low bar at bay.
A Criminal Charge is a Criminal Case
The standard of proof in criminal cases is much higher than in a civil case. The standard for criminal cases is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This does not mean it is easier to defend a criminal case. A prosecutor would not charge someone with a crime if they didn't think they had enough evidence to get a conviction. So even though the standard of proof for the prosecution is higher, it will require just as much, if not more, effort to overcome this burden.
Partnering with an experienced domestic violence criminal defense attorney could help an alleged offender overcome the legal hurdles in front of them. Together with their lawyer, they can build a solid defense to the criminal charges, working to keep them out of jail and avoid a criminal record.
Get the Right Attorney on Your Side
Domestic violence issues come up, but ignoring them is the worst thing anyone can do because it will only make the problem worse. Even though a PFA might not sound all that bad in the sense that a defendant may need to avoid a person who may be thorn in their side, this is a misguided view. If not handled as best as possible, a PFA can lead to a multitude of negative consequences for a defendant which can affect their day-to-day life, in addition to facing the prospect of criminal charges for even innocent and unintentional violations, not to mention for allegations associated with the underlying alleged domestic abuse.
Every alleged offender deserves an aggressive attorney working tirelessly to help them overcome the legal hurdles they face before the potential consequences of a final PFA or criminal conviction affect their daily life, family life, and future opportunities. Ultimately, the lawyer an alleged offender has in his or her corner will play a major part in their PFA and criminal charge defense.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento helps clients overcome PFA cases and criminal charges day in and day out throughout Pennsylvania. Contact the Lento Law Firm online or at 888-535-3686 to learn more about how Attorney Lento and his team can help fight a PFA and any related criminal charges.