When someone close to you—a spouse or intimate partner or a family member—levels a serious accusation against you, claiming that you have harmed them physically or threatened to do so, what's your first instinct? It probably involves talking to that person. You might want to ask them why they have made this allegation, or explain your behavior, or try to work out a solution together. Or maybe you're in agreement with them that the relationship is over and you two should part company—but before you go, you need to gather up a few of your belongings and maybe work out who gets to keep certain household items that are jointly owned.
In the event that the person won't speak to you or answer your texts, it's likely that you'll try contacting them in another way: via social media, by leaving a note in their mailbox, or by asking a mutual friend to pass along a message.
If the accusation comes in the form of a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order, however, the best course of action is to say and do nothing at all in terms of contacting that person. It's understandable that you want to reach out, but it's definitely not advisable.
So what happens if you do slip up and send them that direct message or you show up at their office in a moment of weakness? Being arrested on a charge of contempt is just one of the possible outcomes. Read on to learn more about contempt and the other consequences of violating a PFA order in Pennsylvania.
A Quick Primer on PFA Orders
Before we look at how violating one can land you in serious trouble, it's important to understand what PFA orders are. They're essentially the same as restraining orders, and they are awarded in cases of alleged harassment, domestic violence, and abuse. A Protection from Abuse order restricts the defendant's ability to contact the person who has filed it and demands that they stay away from that person's residence and workplace or school.
There are usually other stipulations, too. These depend on the circumstances of the case, the plaintiff's requests, and the judge's discretion.
An emergency or temporary PFA order will be issued first, pending a hearing. After the hearing, the judge may issue a final Protection from Abuse order that's valid for up to three years.
Typical Additional Terms of PFA Orders
Many times, the restrictions set forth in a PFA go far beyond refraining from texting or calling the person.
As the defendant in a domestic violence or abuse case, you could be forced to vacate your home if you live with the plaintiff, even if you're named in the lease or deed; moreover, you might be compelled to continue paying rent or making mortgage payments for that home. Defendants with children could lose custody or visitation rights. Gun owners with a PFA order against them must forfeit any firearms and ammunition within 24 hours.
Most protective orders also restrict the defendant from third-party contact, as well. This is to prevent them from skirting direct contact by attempting to send a message through a friend or family member.
Violating a Civil PFA Order Can Cause Criminal Charges
Another aspect of PFA orders to understand is that they are civil matters. The plaintiff files for them, and the court grants them, but state prosecutors are not involved, as they are in criminal proceedings.
Once the defendant has violated a PFA order, however, that changes. Violation of a court order is a crime and is therefore subject to penalties.
Additionally, the plaintiff has the right to file a petition for civil contempt. This can lead to additional repercussions, including jail time. Individuals found to be in civil or criminal contempt may be represented by a PFA defense attorney, but they do not have the right to a trial.
Possible Penalties for PFA Order Contempt
So what are the specific sentences handed down to those found in contempt? Naturally, it will depend on the provisions of the original PFA as well as the nature of the violations—say, whether the contact was direct or indirect, or if the defendant committed additional crimes in tandem with the actions that led to the charges of contempt.
For example, simply sending a Facebook message to the plaintiff will have very different ramifications than if you show up at their house, brandishing a weapon and threatening to harm them.
That said, you could be looking at up to six months of probation, up to six months in jail, and a fine of $300 to $1,000.
Noncompliance with the terms of a Protection from Abuse order can and will be used against you in other pending criminal or civil cases in which you are involved. These could include criminal charges of stalking, sexual assault, or battery, or civil cases like divorce or custody matters.
Get Help After a PFA Order Violation
It doesn't take much to violate a protective order in Pennsylvania. One moment, one mistake, one bad decision could lead to a lifetime of consequences. Should you find yourself in this situation, the only way to mitigate the potential punishment is to get in touch with an attorney who has extensive experience in this area of the law. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm or call 888-535-3686 to tell us about the nature of your case and to ensure the best possible outcome.