Engaging with people online or through digital mediums often plays a prominent role in our lives. We send dozens of texts, emails, or social media posts daily without giving them a second thought. However, if you are the subject of a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order or have filed a PFA against someone, you need to reflect carefully before you hit “send” on any online message. Your actions could impact the PFA and the trajectory of your life.
What Is PFA Order?
The state of Pennsylvania takes domestic violence very seriously. If a person is being abused by someone with whom they have a domestic relationship, they may seek a temporary PFA (also known as a Restraining Order) with their local court. When approved by a judge, this order imposes a number of demands on the alleged abuser, including that they stop abusing, threatening, harassing, or contacting the victim–in-person or online.
The temporary PFA remains in effect until the final PFA hearing, which usually takes place within ten days. During this hearing, the victim (plaintiff) and alleged abuser (defendant) will make their case to a judge. If the judge believes that the defendant has abused the plaintiff, the court will issue a final PFA, which will last for three years.
The Effect of Your Online Actions on a PFA
Both the plaintiff and defendant must be careful about their online communication when involved in a PFA matter, particularly prior to the final hearing. Online communications are especially risky for defendants. Most temporary PFAs forbid the defendant from contacting or harassing the plaintiff or other protected people through any form of online communication. This prohibition means you can't text, email, or voice message the plaintiff. You are also forbidden to send a Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, or Instagram message to the plaintiff or even obliquely refer to the plaintiff in an online post.
Any breach of the temporary PFA's terms, even accidentally, can result in the defendant's immediate arrest for criminal contempt of a court order. They can also face steep fines, jail time, loss of child custody, and more. The judge will also likely use the violation against them when considering whether to issue a final PFA or when setting the PFA's final terms.
Even if an alleged abuser adheres to the temporary PFA's terms and makes no mention of the victim online, certain conversations or posts can still affect the final PFA hearing and the PFA. A careless or poorly worded online comment can undercut a defense or make the defendant look bad. For example, a defendant might post on Facebook about how drunk they were at a party on a date that corresponds to the plaintiff's claims of abuse. If the plaintiff sees the post, they could use it against you at the hearing.
Similarly, a plaintiff can damage their PFA case by making careless online posts. A plaintiff who has filed a temporary PFA against a defendant has no restrictions on contacting or referring to the defendant online. If they send a text or post that weakens their allegation, the defendant can present it as evidence in their defense. For example, if the plaintiff writes a message or post that suggests the PFA petition is motivated by spite or to gain child custody, the judge will not be inclined to believe the plaintiff's story and may not issue a final PFA.
Hire an Experienced Pennsylvania PFA Lawyer
A simple misstep online can have an enormous effect on the PFA and the rest of your life. You need excellent legal advice and guidance from an experienced PFA lawyer to avoid making careless online errors and help obtain the result you seek. 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.