Domestic violence is a serious issue that affects individuals and families across the United States, including Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania state legislature defines domestic violence as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse that occurs between family or household members, including spouses, ex-spouses, dating partners, and family members.
As such, the state provides various remedies for victims of domestic violence, including Protection from Abuse orders (PFAs), which are civil orders that can immediately shield a victim from further mistreatment. PFAs can prohibit contact between the abuser and the victim, order the abuser to leave their shared residence, and grant temporary child custody.
In addition to PFA orders, Pennsylvania also offers criminal penalties for domestic violence, which can be charged as assault, stalking, harassment, or other related crimes. These types of criminal convictions can result in significant sanctions, like imprisonment, fines, and mandatory counseling.
Three Types of Pennsylvania Protection Orders
In Pennsylvania, protection orders are categorized into three buckets: Protection from Abuse (PFA), Protection from Sexual Violence (SVP), and Protection from Intimidation (PFI).
While a PFA protects someone who is being physically or sexually hurt, stalked, or threatened by an intimate partner, dating partner, or family member, SVPs offer protection for victims of sexual violence who are still at risk of being abused further by their attacker, and PFIs are there to protect minors from an abuser who is over 18 years old. Unlike PFAs, both SVPs and PFIs do not require the victim and abuser to be in an intimate relationship with one another.
How a PFA Can Help
When a victim petitions the court for a protection order, the court will review the information provided and determine what terms the PFA should include. Often, these terms stipulate that the abuser must leave the house and find somewhere else to reside, refrain from entering the children's school or the victim's workplace, and order the abuser to maintain a certain distance from the victim.
PFAs can also grant temporary spousal support or child custody and require the abuser to relinquish any weapons or gun permits and attend counseling sessions. In many cases, the victim may wish to hide their address and other personal information from the abuser to protect themselves from further harm.
Generally, a victim will petition the court for a protection order, and if the court determines there is enough initial evidence to support it, they will order an ex parte temporary PFA, which does not require the abuser to be notified prior to being imposed. After the temporary PFA is awarded, the judge will set a hearing date for the final PFA, usually within ten days.
During the final PFA hearing, both the victim and the abuser will have an opportunity to present evidence and witnesses to support their arguments. The judge will review the arguments presented and determine whether a more permanent PFA is necessary. Final PFAs can last for up to three years, at which time a victim can request it to be renewed.
Where Criminal Offenses and PFAs Intersect
As explained above, PFAs are civil orders which shield victims of domestic violence or abuse from further mistreatment by their abuser. While a PFA order can provide immediate protection for victims, it does not provide for the criminal prosecution of the abuser. However, if the abuser's behavior towards the victim rises to the level of criminal conduct, such as assault or stalking, the victim can also report the incident to law enforcement and pursue criminal charges against the abuser.
A criminal charge is a violation of the criminal law and is considered an offense against the community at large, whereas a civil case is considered a personal offense. Additionally, PFAs protect a victim from future hurt based on past actions, but criminal charges are meant to punish past actions. For instance, PFAs are sought by a victim for protection from a particular abuser, thus they are meant to rectify a personal offense. Assault or stalking on the other hand are violations of criminal law, which need to be punished so that individuals do not think they can commit the same crime without repercussions.
Further, victims of assault, stalking, sexual assault, threats of assault, and false imprisonment, or minor victims of physical or sexual abuse, can receive a PFA when their abuser is criminally charged for the conduct, without them first pursuing it. For example, if a family member calls the police and accuses the defendant of assault, the police will arrest the defendant. The defendant will then have to defend themselves in a traditional trial hearing. During the hearing, the judge is likely to impose a PFA for the victim to prevent further abuse or retaliation while the case is being adjudicated.
How an Experienced Professional Can Help
PFAs and criminal offenses, while they intersect in several ways, are still distinctly separate legal remedies. For an abuser to be brought up on criminal charges because of a PFA, they must first violate the protection from abuse order. And for a protection from abuse order to kick in without the victim petitioning for one, the abuser must be arrested for a particular criminal offense, like assault or stalking.
Whether you are a victim seeking a PFA, PFI, or SVP, or are facing allegations of domestic violence or abuse, you need a knowledgeable and experienced professional to protect your rights and defend you in court. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and Lento Law Firm's Family Law Team have years of experience handling PFA cases from either side of family law. They will work tirelessly to gather witnesses and relevant evidence to create a strategic defense, guaranteeing you the best possible outcome for your case. Call 888-535-3686 today or schedule a consultation online.