Victims of domestic abuse in Pennsylvania don't have to suffer in silence. Thanks to the Protection of Abuse Act of 1990, they can seek a Protection Fromfrom Abuse (PFA) order from the courts when they have experienced violence or sexual abuse from a family member, domestic partner, or another qualifying person. A PFA, also known as a restraining order, generally forbids that alleged abuser from abusing, contacting, threatening, stalking, or otherwise harassing a victim of domestic violence.
To obtain the PFA, the abuse victim (the plaintiff) must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged abuser (the defendant) committed abuse. In so doing, the plaintiff will present evidence of the abuse or violence to the court, including the defendant's prior history of abusive or violent acts. The court will carefully consider each piece of evidence in making a final determination about the PFA. Prior history, therefore, will almost certainly impact a PFA.
Obtaining a Temporary PFA
If a victim of domestic abuse needs immediate protection, they must file a temporary PFA petition against the defendant with their local court. The plaintiff will detail the most recent incident of abuse. In particular, they will describe how the defendant abused, threatened, or injured them, their children, or other household members, including pets. To bolster their claim, they may also describe the defendant's prior history of abuse or violence, including previous PFAs filed against them, or if they've violated earlier PFAs.
If the judge is convinced that the plaintiff or the children are in immediate danger of abuse, it will issue a temporary PFA. This order is ex parte, which means that it is based on the plaintiff's allegations alone. The temporary PFA will remain in effect until the court schedules a final PFA hearing, usually occurring within ten business days. At that time, both the plaintiff and defendant will present their sides of the story in full.
Terms of the Temporary PFA
The temporary PFA will prohibit the defendant from taking certain actions, depending on the relief the plaintiff seeks. Among other things, the temporary PFA may order the defendant to immediately:
- Cease all abuse of the plaintiff, children, or others in the household
- Cease any form of contact with the plaintiff, children, or others in the household
- Cease any form of contact with the plaintiff's extended family
- Quit the family home
- Refrain from entering the plaintiff's home or workplace, or the children's school
- Relinquish any firearm, other weapons, or ammunition owned and refrain from buying more
- Relinquish any firearm license possessed
- Pay child and spousal support.
Once the police serve the defendant with the PFA, Pennsylvania law requires the defendant to adhere to its restrictions. If the defendant fails to follow even one of the requirements–even accidentally–they can be fined, arrested, and jailed. In addition, the judge will take into account the criminal violation when considering issuing the final PFA order.
The temporary PFA also provides the defendant with important information about the final PFA hearing, including the date and time of the hearing, their right to have an attorney, present evidence, and bring witnesses. Upon being served with a temporary PFA, the defendant should retain experienced legal counsel immediately. If the judge determines that a final PFA should be issued, its terms will last for three years.
The Final PFA Hearing
The final PFA hearing will take place approximately ten days following the issuance of the temporary PFA. Whether plaintiff or defendant, it is essential that you attend this hearing. If a plaintiff fails to attend, the temporary PFA will expire, and you will have to restart the entire process. If the defendant doesn't attend, the judge may decide to enter a default judgment against them and issue the final PFA order without hearing their side of the story. If you believe you cannot attend the final PFA hearing, you must contact the court to seek a “continuance.” The continuance will allow you to have a later court date without endangering your rights.
Both parties will have the chance to testify at the hearing. The plaintiff is responsible for proving that domestic abuse has occurred and will probably occur again. The standard of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence.” This standard means that the plaintiff must show that it's more likely than not the defendant abused them or someone in the household, and it's probable they'll do so again.
A well-prepared plaintiff will present a wide range of evidence supporting their case. They may bring medical, police or court records, photographs of injuries, emails, text messages, or other written or digital proof of the defendant's behavior. They may also present witnesses who can testify about the defendant's acts of violence.
The defendant's prior history will also play a key role. The plaintiff can introduce evidence of prior protection orders against the defendant and–importantly–any violation of those orders. They may also highlight prior arrests, prior convictions for violence (domestic or otherwise), any criminal convictions, or a history of child abuse or neglect.
The defendant may counter the allegations by presenting evidence that contradicts the plaintiff's claims or puts the plaintiff's allegations in proper context. A defendant should not try to represent themselves in this hearing but have knowledgeable legal counsel at their side, particularly if they have a prior history that suggests a propensity for violence or wrongdoing. A skilled lawyer will know which evidence to put forward and how to best counter the plaintiff's claims.
After hearing the evidence, the judge will decide whether to issue a final PFA. Once the order is entered, it will last for three years.
Hire an Experienced PFA Attorney
A final PFA order can have long-term consequences on your life. You need excellent legal advice and guidance from an experienced PFA lawyer as you defend against it. Pennsylvania attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience with PFA cases and domestic violence charges. He is here to help and protect you as you navigate this challenging time. Give the Lento Law Firm a call today at 888-536-3686 or contact them online.