If you have ever watched a true crime show on TV like 20/20 or Dateline, or if you keep up with the Kardashians, you've probably heard of a restraining order. This document is also called an order of protection in some states, but in Pennsylvania, it's known as a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order. Today we're looking at the issue of weapons forfeitures in light of PFA orders. When you are served with one of these orders, what will happen to any guns you own?
The Basics of Protection From Abuse Orders
A PFA order, by definition, protects the holder from “abuse”—which is a fairly broad term in general parlance. What does abuse mean in a legal context? It is illegal for anyone to hurt or harm another person in the state of Pennsylvania. This includes physical abuse, which can be carried out either with or without a weapon of some type. There is also criminal sexual abuse. Abuse can also refer to stalking or otherwise interfering with someone's freedom of movement.
It's important to know that no assault needs to actually occur for the perpetrator to be charged with a crime. Even the threat of assaulting someone sexually or physically is against the law. Similarly, a PFA order can be granted to those who have been threatened by an abuser. After someone has filed for this type of relief, the judge can issue a temporary PFA order that stipulates various conditions and actions, such as stopping the abuse, ordering the abuser to stay away from the parties, or evicting them from their place of residence if they share it will those who have filed for protection.
A temporary PFA order can last for up to 10 days, pending a hearing. After the hearing, the judge may issue a final protection order. This can last up to three years but may also be extended if there is a credible threat of continued abuse.
Weapons Forfeiture After a PFA Order Is Issued
Under PA law, the court is authorized to prohibit people from retaining their firearms after temporary PFA orders have been issued. This means that the judge has the right to order the abuser to forfeit any and all weapons but is not required to.
A final protection from abuse order, on the other hand, carries a requirement that weapons be forfeited. This is because access to firearms greatly increases the odds that a woman will be killed by an abusive partner or former partner; assaults involving a firearm in the context of domestic violence are 12 times more likely to be fatal than assaults with other weapons or those that rely on bodily force.
Act 79 and Its Effect on Pennsylvania Abuse Defendants
Until recently, Pennsylvanians who were served a final PFA order or who had been convicted of misdemeanor charges related to domestic violence had up to 60 days to surrender firearms. Additionally, they had the option of transferring ownership of any guns to a friend or family member.
As of April 2019, however, new legislation went into effect that drastically altered the consequences of final PFA orders for gun owners. PA Governor Tom Wolf signed into law Act 79, which requires defendants in domestic abuse cases to turn in their firearms within 24 hours—to the district attorney of their jurisdiction, to law enforcement entities, or to a licensed gun dealer.
In some cases, a PFA defendant may be allowed to contest the forfeiture or to try reaching an agreement with the court and the plaintiff. The judge has the final say as to whether or not a PFA firearms agreement will be approved.
After the 24-Hour Deadline
Once the deadline has passed, if the individual has not relinquished their firearms pursuant to a PFA order or conviction of a domestic violence misdemeanor, they are considered to have committed yet another crime. This one is a second-degree misdemeanor, and upon conviction, the defendant will be legally prohibited from possessing, acquiring, or owning a firearm for much longer. There may already be charges pending against that person, so the failure to forfeit their guns will only compound their legal troubles.
Upon the failure of the defendant to relinquish guns within the 24-hour time frame, the law enforcement agency in that jurisdiction must immediately notify the victim, the court, the prosecutor, and the sheriff.
What Happens After the PFA Order Expires?
Many people who relinquish weapons in the midst of a legal battle over alleged abuse are left to wonder, “When can I get my guns back?” The answer depends on several factors and requirements.
The first requirement is the expiration or dismissal of the PFA order. Final protection from abuse orders can extend for up to three years; they can also be extended in certain circumstances at the judge's discretion upon application by the plaintiff. After the order has expired or has been dismissed by the court, the defendant can fill out a form requesting the return of his or her gun(s). At that time, the individual who was granted the PFA must be notified that this request has been made.
Other requirements that must be met are as follows:
- The weapons in question must not be evidence of any crime
- The gun owner must not be prohibited by law, whether PA or federal, from owning firearms
- The authorities must clear the defendant gun owner by using the Pennsylvania State Police Instant Check System Unit or the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to ensure that no other charges are pending and that all other conditions pursuant to firearms possession have been met
It is imperative to secure the services of a Pennsylvania Family Law attorney if you have been issued a temporary or a final Protection from Abuse order. This is especially true if you have been additionally ordered to relinquish your firearms. Failure to follow these orders to the letter can result in exponentially worse charges and their consequences. Only a skilled, experienced attorney who has a background in defending these types of cases will have the acumen necessary to steer you in the right direction. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 today to learn how we've successfully defended other people in similar situations—and how we can help you.