Victims of domestic violence are protected under Pennsylvania's Protection From Abuse Act. The act sets up a system across the entire state dedicated to aid victims through several legal services. These services are meant to be ready and easy to use for those who have little to no experience in the courtroom.
Domestic violence is a very emotional and divisive issue in many relationships across the country. These matters are of particular importance when they are brought into the courtroom.
Since domestic violence allegations can have serious consequences for all parties involved, it's important that you seek legal support as soon as possible. Contact Attorney Joseph Lento and his Family Law Team at 888.535.3686 to discuss your situation.
What Is Domestic Violence?
There's no specific crime in Pennsylvania that constitutes domestic violence. Instead, domestic violence is a blanket term for violence or abuse coming from a person which is directed at certain individuals (“household members”).
Domestic violence or abuse refers to any of the following acts when done by a household member:
- Bodily injury or harm, battery
- Assault, direct threats, or fear of bodily injury or harm
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Stalking and harassment
Who Can Be Accused of Domestic Violence?
As noted, domestic violence allegations can only be brought against “household members.” This particularly extends to couples and their children; however, a person does not necessarily need to be living in the same place as another person to be considered a "household member."
Household members include any immediate or extended family, current or former spouses or sexual partners, or someone that the victim has a child with. The Protection from Abuse Act applies to acts of violence from any of the above groups.
What Happens if Someone Is Arrested for Domestic Violence?
A police officer may arrest someone for domestic violence without a warrant at any time or at any location. However, they can only arrest the person without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe the incident took place as described. Corroborating evidence includes, for example, eyewitness testimony or visible injuries.
The perpetrator may be awarded bail, but it depends on the facts of the case. Bail will be denied if the judge deems that the perpetrator is a significant threat to the victim's safety pending trial.
What Is a PFA?
A Protection from Abuse order, or "PFA order," is exactly what it sounds like. The order is like a restraining order, though it is applied directly to cases of domestic violence, and comes in several forms: emergency, temporary, and permanent (final).
In general, a PFA order is a legal document that restricts the abuser's access and ability to contact the victims. The abuser is not allowed to be within proximity of the victim's home, work, or school, and must surrender all firearms to their local police station. PFA violators will be arrested and prosecuted for crimes.
Do PFA Orders Mean Criminal Charges?
No. A victim can file for a PFA order, but this is a civil rather than criminal matter. PFAs only lead to criminal charges if:
- The perpetrator is arrested for a criminal offense which gave rise to the PFA e.g., assault, harassment.
- The perpetrator violates the PFA order.
How Do I Request a PFA Order?
A PFA order can be requested from the court if a person fears or is undergoing abuse from a household member. For persons over the age of 18, a PFA request can be filed at the local court. PFA orders protect the victim and any family members from abuse. For minors, a parent or guardian will need to fill out a request for a PFA order on their behalf.
There are a few different types of PFA orders that serve different purposes and have different levels of urgency involved. PFA orders can be issued in emergencies, as a temporary order, or in some cases, they may become permanent.
Emergency PFA Order
An emergency PFA is issued when a situation arises outside of the court's business hours. Normally a PFA order is requested at a courthouse, however, if domestic violence or fear of domestic violence occurs on a weekend or holiday, and immediate action is necessary, an emergency PFA can be requested. This can be done by either contacting the police or emergency services, also, many courts have dedicated hotlines for emergency PFA order requests.
If the judge feels that a person is in immediate danger, an emergency PFA will be issued and will be upheld until the next available business day for the case to be heard by a judge, or until the victim can get in front of a judge.
A temporary PFA, or "ex parte" PFA, is a temporary PFA order. These orders can be requested and placed without the abusers in court to defend themselves against the allegations. Temporary PFA orders will normally last until a hearing for a permanent PFA can be held. This can take several business days.
A permanent PFA order, or "final" PFA, is an official PFA order that can last for however long the court deems necessary. In most cases, these orders can last up to three years. Permanent PFA orders will be issued after a hearing where both abuser and victim are able to present their cases to the judge handling the case. The judge will hear out both sides and make the determination on whether the PFA will be granted, and if so, how long the PFA will last.
Violating a PFA
Despite PFAs being civil orders, violating a PFA is a criminal offense. If you're charged with a PFA violation in PA, you face fines of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
Repeated violations may carry steeper penalties and lead to further criminal charges. If you're in any doubt as to how to comply with the order, stay on the safe side. Call Joseph Lento and his Domestic Violence Team for advice.
Can PFA Orders Affect My Divorce or Custody Arrangements?
Domestic violence issues almost always make their way into other matters of family law. The actions of abusers and victims will be weighed out in nearly all matters of custody, support, and divorce.
Domestic Violence and Custody
For instance, for individuals in a custody battle, domestic violence allegations can affect whether a parent gets custody at all. Or, if the domestic violence incident occurs with a standing custody agreement in place, the victim may be able to request a change in the order to limit interaction with the abuser.
The judge will consider currently standing custody agreements when determining a PFA, however, the purpose of a PFA is to protect the victim from the abuser. Because of this, PFA orders can sometimes affect custody arrangements.
Domestic Violence and Divorce
In a divorce, particularly a fault-divorce situation, domestic violence can be used as evidence to show that the marriage has been irreparably broken. Acts of domestic violence and other criminal histories are more likely to affect custody, rather than support, however, depending on the circumstances, they may come into consideration when determining these items.
Do PFA Orders Expire?
Final PFAs last for up to three years. However, if the victim still feels unsafe, they can seek a renewal of the order.
There's no limit to how many times a final PFA order can be renewed, so if there's an order awarded against you, it's hard to say for sure how long it will be in force.
Can PFAs Be Terminated?
Final PFA orders can be canceled early if the victim determines that the perpetrator is no longer a threat to them. They can ask the court to vacate or cancel the order; however, the court will only do so if they're convinced that the victim is safe and that they have not been coerced into seeking a termination.
If the judge refuses to terminate the order, it remains in force until it expires.
What if We Want to Reconcile?
It's not unusual for parties to decide, after everyone calms down, that they might want to reconcile. However, if you're the victim, you should not contact the defendant. You your attorney can ask the court to vacate or cancel the order.
If you're the defendant, you must not contact the victim under any circumstances, even if they contact you. Instead, if you wish to appeal the findings against you, call the Lento Law Firm for advice.
Consequences of Domestic Violence Allegations
The consequences of domestic violence allegations – and PFA orders – can be severe.
- PFA orders enter a police database which means they can be discovered by the public, e.g., by employers in certain circumstances.
- Domestic violence convictions affect your permanent record.
- An order may prevent you from applying for the job you want or pursuing a career in certain fields.
- PFA violations can result in criminal charges which carry steep penalties.
- You may lose custody of your children or lose the right to see them.
- It may be impossible for you to return to your own home if you share it with the victim.
Domestic Violence and Your Criminal Record
Domestic violence allegations can sometimes affect your permanent criminal record. It all depends on the circumstances of your case.
- Final PFAs: Final PFA orders do not go on your criminal record since they are civil rather than criminal orders. However, if you violate an order, you could be found guilty of criminal contempt, and this will show up on your record.
- Criminal charges: If you're facing criminal charges related to domestic violence, e.g., assault, a conviction will go on your permanent record. Even if you're not convicted, the arrest can stay on your record unless it's formally expunged.
Defending Domestic Violence Allegations
If someone is facing a PFA order or they're accused of domestic violence, they have the right to defend the allegations.
To get a final PFA order, a victim must prove their case on the “preponderance of the evidence,”; meaning it's more likely the victim's account is true than not. To be convicted of a criminal offense, the prosecution must prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a much higher standard of proof.
In either scenario, various defenses may be open to a defendant. The defenses available will, naturally, depend upon the facts of the case. However, you have the right to present evidence in your defense, including:
- Medical records
- Phone records
- Social media messages
- Witness testimony
Appealing PFA Orders and Domestic Violence Convictions
In PA, you have the right to appeal a PFA order and any criminal conviction for domestic violence.
- To appeal a PFA, file a Motion of Reconsideration with the original court within 10 days of the judgment. Or lodge an appeal with the Superior Court within 30 days.
- To appeal a criminal charge related to domestic violence, you must file an initial motion with the trial court within 10 days and then a motion for appeal within 30 days.
Civil and criminal appeal procedures are different, but they are equally complex. Joseph Lento and his Domestic Violence Team can explain the appeals process as it relates to your case.
Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Attorney
Domestic violence remains a very serious issue that affects residents all over the country. Although Pennsylvania has made Protection from Abuse orders readily available in emergencies, victims must still prove their case in court to make a PFA order permanent.
At the Lento Law Firm, we're committed to helping you and your family through this challenging time. If you need a PFA or have questions about domestic violence, Attorney Joseph Lento and his Domestic Violence Team can help. Contact us at 888.535.3686 or leave a message online to schedule a meeting.