Berks County, PA, has a population of just over 430,000 residents. If any Berks County resident requires protection following a domestic violence incident, they have two options: call the police for emergency assistance or file a petition for a restraining order (known as a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order) with the Family Court Office in the Berks County Courthouse. Even when the courts are closed outside of business hours or on weekends, you can still approach the court, and the on-duty judge will review your case.
Domestic violence is a complex issue. Call Joseph Lento and the Domestic Violence Team now at 888.535.3686 to arrange a meeting.
By Section 6102 of Title 23 of the PA Criminal Code, domestic violence is broadly defined as recklessly or deliberately causing bodily harm to a person you have a domestic relationship with. It also includes the threat of actual bodily harm, sexual violence, and false imprisonment.
“Household members” under the Protection From Abuse Act include spouses, people who have a biological child in common, and people who have a current (or past) intimate relationship. Children and roommates can also be household members for the purposes of domestic violence.
To be clear, neighbors, landlords, work colleagues, and friends don't count as household members under the Act unless there's an existing intimate relationship. However, that does not mean that there are no remedies available. It may be possible to have the perpetrator arrested or bring another civil action, depending on the facts of the case.
Actual or Threatened Injury
Although domestic abuse incidents often involve acts of physical violence, they can also include the threat of physical violence or bodily harm. The perceived threat should be reasonable, i.e., a reasonable person could assume, based on the perpetrator's behavior, that bodily harm is imminent.
There is no single act that constitutes domestic abuse or violence. Behavior that could amount to domestic violence includes shoving, kicking, hitting the victim with an object, or stalking or harassing them.
It's not always easy to determine what may or may not be domestic violence. In any case, if you fear for your safety, always call 911 for an emergency response.
Remedies for Domestic Violence in Berks County
There are two main remedies for domestic violence in PA: civil protection orders known as Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders, and criminal charges.
Civil Protection Orders
A Protection from Abuse order is a type of restraining order reserved for people in qualifying domestic relationships. The PFA serves to stop an alleged abuser from behaving in a certain way which should keep the victim safe from further harm. If the alleged abuser violates the order, they can be arrested.
These orders can be temporary, meaning they only last a few days, or permanent (final). They can also be amended to reflect changing circumstances. If you wish to amend or cancel an existing PFA, the Lento Law Firm can help.
Criminal charges may be filed if a person is arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. Victims can call 911, and emergency responders will attend the scene and arrest the defendant if they have probable cause to do so.
Filing for a PFA Order in Berks County
To get a PFA order in Berks County, the victim – known now as the petitioner – must file for an order with the Protection from Abuse Department within the Berks County Family Court. Outside of regular business hours, if they need emergency protection, petitioners can approach the Reading Court.
Petitioners must complete paperwork detailing the nature of the incident and why they need protection. The judge will consider the petitioner's complaint and decide ex parte, meaning the order is passed without hearing from the defendant.
Although it might seem unfair to issue an order without hearing from the defendant, it's important to consider the circumstances. These orders are only temporary, and judges often err on the side of caution and award temporary PFA orders without much evidence to prioritize a victim's safety. Final PFAs, however, are a different matter. They do require evidence, or the order won't be renewed. If the defendant fails to show up for the hearing, though, the order will likely be passed without them having a chance to defend themselves.
The petitioner must submit the relevant paperwork for the judge to consider. They should be as specific as possible to help the judge determine if the order is necessary. Temporary PFAs granted out-of-hours are made on an emergency basis to protect the victim until a judge hears the case, whereas “regular” temporary PFAs are granted during business hours.
Serving an Order
If the judge grants a temporary PFA order, it must be served on the defendant. Often it falls on police officers to do this. The defendant must immediately comply with the order – even if this means leaving the family home at once.
Should you be served with a PFA order, you should cooperate with the police. Failing to cooperate will only make things worse in the long term. Contact the Lento Law Firm for immediate assistance in building your case.
Final PFA Hearing
The final hearing is the petitioner's chance to show why a final PFA order is necessary to protect their safety. It's also the defendant's first opportunity to make their case and present evidence explaining why the order is not necessary. As noted, should they fail to show up at the hearing, it's likely the final PFA will be awarded in their absence.
The judge decides based on the strength of the evidence presented. Admissible evidence includes medical records, phone records, text messages, photographs, and witness testimony. No matter whether you're the petitioner or the defendant, Joseph Lento and the Domestic Violence Team can help you build the most convincing case based on the facts. We will represent you at the hearing and advocate on your behalf.
Outcome of the Final PFA Hearing
At the final hearing, the judge determines whether to grant the order or dismiss the victim's case. If granted, the final PFA comes into effect immediately. If dismissed, the temporary PFA expires, and the defendant is no longer bound to comply with its terms.
Final PFAs hearings may be concluded before criminal proceedings can be completed. Even if a PFA is dismissed, the criminal case is still ongoing. Similarly, if a PFA is granted, this does not mean the defendant will be found guilty of a crime. Your attorney can explain how the process works as it relates to your case.
Appealing a Decision
Both parties can appeal a PFA judgment in Berks County. Your options are either filing a Motion of Reconsideration with the court or filing directly with the Superior Court in PA.
You only have 10 days from the hearing date to file a Motion of Reconsideration and 30 days to file with the Superior Court. In both cases, you must remember that this is not a chance to revisit the case in its entirety. You must have legal grounds to make an appeal, such as if the judge failed to apply the law correctly, or if it's manifestly unfair not to reconsider the decision.
The Lento Law Firm can advise if you have grounds for an appeal and how to proceed.
Consequences of a PFA Order in Berks County
A PFA order restricts the defendant from doing certain things, such as seeing the victim or being in the same vicinity as them. This means you may be unable to return home if you share it with the victim – although you could still be expected to make mortgage or rent payments.
A final PFA order lasts for at least three years, but it can be renewed multiple times, meaning it's unclear just how long the restrictions will last. For many defendants, this means an indefinite length of time away from their homes or even their children.
Civil orders, if violated, could result in criminal charges. They must be taken just as seriously as criminal judgments. Consult your attorney immediately if you're unsure how to comply with an order, if the victim contacts you, or if you're the victim and you wish to reconcile.
Consequences of Criminal Charges for Domestic Violence
Even just being arrested for domestic violence can have consequences. The arrest leaves a mark on your criminal record, and it won't be removed unless a court grants an expungement.
If you're convicted of a criminal offense in a domestic setting, e.g., assaulting a spouse, the penalties range from financial fines to prison time, depending on whether it's a felony or misdemeanor charge and your criminal record. And multiple domestic violence offenses will, unsurprisingly, incur more severe penalties.
A criminal conviction may make it harder to pursue certain opportunities, such as a degree in medicine or a career in law enforcement. It may also impact civil proceedings, depending on the circumstances of the case.
Why You Need a Domestic Violence Attorney
There are many reasons why you should hire an experienced attorney if you're dealing with family law matters such as domestic violence.
For one thing, domestic violence or abuse allegations can result in serious consequences. An attorney will ensure that your case is handled correctly, giving you the best possible chance of a favorable outcome.
What's more, although it may seem simple enough to file for court orders like PFAs, the procedure can be deceptively complex. An attorney will make sure that you present the strongest case and the most compelling evidence.
Finally, if you're defending criminal charges or civil proceedings, you must ensure that your rights are always protected. A conviction or even a civil order against you can affect everything from custody rights to employment opportunities – you deserve the chance to mitigate the long-term impact of an accusation on your life.
Call a Domestic Violence Attorney in Berks County, PA
Don't suffer alone if you're dealing with a domestic violence concern or related family matter. Instead, call attorney Joseph Lento and the Family Law Team here at the Lento Law Firm. Our experienced team will ensure that you fully understand your rights and the options open to you, and we will help you present the strongest possible case based on the facts.
The Lento Law Firm has supported numerous individuals through complex family law matters. We can help your family, too. Call on 888.535.3686 or leave us a message online to arrange a meeting.