In PA, domestic violence is broadly defined as any abusive or violent behavior instigated by one household member against another. Given how severe these incidents can be, the courts take domestic allegations extremely seriously.
There are two major remedies available to domestic abuse victims in PA: criminal charges and Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders. Here's a look at what happens immediately after an arrest and how these charges may affect any PFA proceedings.
What Is the Next Step After an Arrest for Domestic Violence?
The defendant will attend two hearings in the immediate aftermath – the preliminary arraignment and the preliminary hearing.
This is a type of detention hearing that takes place within 72 hours of the initial arrest. The judge reads the charges and sets any bail conditions if applicable.
Typically, the judge also awards a Stay Away Order (SAO), even if the victim decides to file for a civil PFA at the same time. SAOs are restraining orders which compel a defendant to avoid contacting the victim or approaching them in any way, and it's a criminal offense to violate them.
Within ten days of the arraignment, there's a hearing at which the judge determines if there's probable cause to take the case to trial or if the case (and SAO) should be dismissed.
The victim can still file for a civil PFA against the defendant even if the criminal charges are dropped. The burden of proof in civil courts is lower, and so there's no guarantee the court won't award a PFA just because the criminal case is dismissed.
Will the Defendant Get Bail?
Under Section 2711 of Title 18 of the PA Consolidated Statutes, the judge will not award bail unless they are satisfied that there's no immediate threat to the victim's safety. Even if the judge grants bail, the defendant will most likely be barred from entering the victim's home and workplace until at least the preliminary hearing.
Can Domestic Violence Charges Be Dropped After the Preliminary Hearing?
Domestic violence charges can only be dropped by the prosecution – not the victim. So, if police officers arrest an individual for domestic violence, it's up to the prosecutor to decide whether they'll drop any charges filed, even if the victim changes their mind and decides they want to reconcile with the accused.
With help from an experienced domestic violence attorney, however, parties may be able to convince the prosecutor to dismiss the charges. For example, if they can show that the victim no longer wants to cooperate, the prosecutor may decide to drop the case.
What Is a Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order?
A PFA is a civil order granted by the court in domestic abuse cases. It's designed to keep a domestic abuse victim safe by preventing the defendant from behaving in a certain way.
Upon receiving the victim's application, the court can award them either a temporary or emergency PFA. This order persists until a final PFA hearing takes place (usually ten days after the court awards the initial order), at which point the judge will either extend the PFA or dismiss the case. You're entitled to legal representation from a criminal defense attorney at this hearing.
Depending on the terms, a PFA can stop the defendant from contacting the victim, seeing their children, or even returning to the family home. Given how serious these consequences can be, you should hire an attorney for representation immediately if there's a PFA filed against you.
Do I Need a PFA if Criminal Charges Are Pending?
It depends on the facts of the case – no two domestic violence situations are the same. For example, if the victim fears for their physical safety but the police have not yet arrested the accused for domestic violence, they might file for a PFA in the meantime. Or they could file for a PFA while the criminal case is underway and they're concerned for their wellbeing if the defendant is awarded bail.
How Do Criminal Charges Affect PFAs?
If you're defending a PFA, a criminal conviction for domestic violence can be detrimental to your defense. This is because the victim can argue that the conviction supports their case against you. An experienced criminal defense attorney can explain specifically how criminal charges may affect the outcome of a final PFA hearing based on your circumstances.
What Are the Penalties for a PFA Violation in PA?
Violating a PFA means the defendant breaches the order's terms in some way, e.g., they contact the victim or visit the victim's home. A PFA violation is considered criminal contempt and could result in penalties of up to 6 months jail time or fines of up to $1000.
- The penalties may be more severe if there are other criminal charges pending or the defendant has a prior criminal record
- A contempt conviction will appear on the defendant's record. This could make it harder for the defendant to find employment in certain professions or attend school.
Even if the parties reconcile, the defendant should not breach the PFA – instead, call an attorney to discuss your options for dismissing or changing the order.
Are PFAs and Stay Away Orders the Same?
No. Although they're similar, remember, a PFA is a civil order which the victim can request from the court. An SAO is a type of restraining order awarded by the criminal courts to protect a victim during domestic violence investigations.
That said, they have one thing in common: it's a criminal offense to violate either order. Penalties can range from monetary fines to jail time, depending on the circumstances.
How the Lento Law Firm Can Help
Domestic violence allegations and PFAs can have serious repercussions for all parties involved, whether you're the defendant or the victim. At the Lento Law Firm, we can guide you through this incredibly stressful time by offering compassionate legal representation at every stage of the process. Contact experienced family law attorney Joseph Lento on 888.535.3686 or online to find out more.