Family disputes in Pennsylvania often become further complicated by a Protection From Abuse order, also known as a PFA or PFA order. While these orders are meant to protect plaintiffs from physical harm and harassment, they often impose extreme, highly inconvenient consequences on the defendant.
Whether you are the defendant in an existing PFA order or you anticipate a PFA order related to a family dispute, it is important that you understand the fine details of PFAs. While this guide should help you gain a better understanding of Pennsylvania's PFA rules and procedures, you can also hire the Lento Law Firm as your representative.
By hiring a lawyer, you may improve your odds of remaining compliant with a temporary PFA order. Your attorney may also ensure that you do not face a permanent PFA order, protecting you from the serious consequences that a permanent order can impose on you and your loved ones.
A Brief Explanation of PFA Orders in Pennsylvania
The state of Pennsylvania allows anyone over the age of 18 or minors accompanied by a parent to seek a PFA order. In the context of family law, a PFA order may stem from:
- A physical altercation between individuals who share a dwelling, whether they are romantically involved, family, or simply roommates
- Threats of physical violence
- Behavior that qualifies as harassment
- Certain other circumstances that lead a judge to decide that one party needs protection from another
A Court of Common Pleas judge may sign a PFA order after reviewing a petition filed by the plaintiff.
If you're reading this, the odds are that you are already the defendant named in a PFA order. We won't delve too deeply into the circumstances that can lead to a PFA order, but you should know that the odds may already be stacked against you.
Pennsylvania's Office of Victim Services labels defendants named in PFA orders as “abusers,” indicating that the state may have a bias in favor of the plaintiff who files a PFA order. With our help, you can get the knowledge and answers you need to (hopefully) avoid further harm because of a PFA.
You've Been Named a Defendant in a PFA Order. Here's What to Do Next.
Our team assists defendants who find themselves in various stages of the PFA process. Whether you've already been served with a PFA order, have reason to believe that a PFA order is incoming, or find yourself further down the legal line, there are several best practices to follow.
As a defendant named in a PFA order, you should:
- Retain an attorney Even if you consider yourself well-read, legally savvy, or otherwise qualified, having a lawyer can only be a benefit. More specifically, a lawyer who focuses on helping defendants facing PFA orders can be a valuable resource. Your lawyer can provide a comprehensive roadmap to protect you from further legal trouble. Our team can review the details of your PFA order, explain what this order means, prepare a defense, and provide actionable advice with your best interests in mind.
- Abide by the order As unjust or draconian as a PFA order may seem, it is critical that you abide by the letter of the order. We can lobby for more reasonable terms and defend your name through the Pennsylvania family court system. Attempting to fight injustice by violating a PFA order can only make your current situation worse.
- Proceed with life as usual A PFA order puts immense stress on the defendant. Our team will ensure that you're doing everything possible to resolve the legal issues that led to the PFA order. In the meantime, continue to live your life within the parameters of the PFA order.
Questions We Often Hear From Defendants Facing a PFA Order in Pennsylvania
Our first mission is to answer some of the most pressing questions you may have. Some of the concerns we most often hear from defendants named in PFAs are:
- Am I facing criminal charges? A PFA order is a civil matter, at least for now. However, violating the terms of your PFA order could escalate matters. If a judge determines that you have violated any term of the order of protection, they may charge you with Indirect Criminal Contempt. A criminal conviction under this charge could lead to:
- A prison sentence of up to six months
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Any personal or professional harm that results from a criminal conviction
- While you may not be facing criminal charges right now, the potential of a criminal conviction looms large over any defendant names in a PFA.
- Have zero contact with your children while the order remains in effect
- Have only supervised contact with your children at your home or at another designated location
- Have partial custody of your children without any required supervision
- A court considers the details of each PFA order petition when it grants or denies the PFA. It is entirely up to the presiding judge to set the terms of custody, and judges do not always get it right. Even if you feel that a judge is wrong, it is vital that you respect the terms of the order—as painful as separation from your children may be.
You may have more questions, and we're ready to answer them. When you contact the Lento Law Firm about your case, have those questions and concerns ready for our team.
The Details of Your PFA Order Matter
The details of your PFA order indicate what you can and cannot do. These details also indicate whether the PFA order is temporary or permanent. Though we've already touched on the differences, it is important to clearly define the two categories of PFA order:
- Temporary PFA order, also known as an ex parte PFA order: The court grants a temporary PFA order with the understanding that a Final PFA order hearing lies ahead.
- Final PFA order: A Final PFA order imposes restrictions on the plaintiff for up to three years. You have options for fighting a Final PFA order, including a Motion for Reconsideration and an appeal, but the more ideal outcome is having a judge deny the initial Final PFA order petition.
There is a third category of PFA order, an emergency PFA order, but this type of order reflects a temporary PFA order. The difference is that a plaintiff may receive this order at a time when the Court of Common Pleas is not available—namely, a weekend or night. A magisterial judge assigned to nights or weekends may approve this order, but the plaintiff will need to file for a temporary PFA order once business hours resume.
These broad details of your PFA order will inform our legal approach. If your PFA order remains in the temporary stage, we'll most likely focus on your upcoming Final PFA order hearing. If your PFA order is already final, we may focus on a Motion for Reconsideration, an appeal, or other attempts to vacate the PFA order.
What Happens If You're Accused of Violating Your PFA Order?
Whether you're falsely accused of violating a PFA order, or you have actually violated the order, it is critical that you contact your attorney as soon as possible. If you have not yet retained an attorney, the Lento Law Firm can help.
The plaintiff named in your lawsuit can report a violation of the PFA order. They may do so by filing a police report, calling 911, or contacting the court. A judge or another law enforcement official may issue a warrant for your arrest, notifying you to turn yourself in or proactively arresting you.
The criminal process may then begin. Your attorney may then defend you from an allegation that you've violated a temporary PFA order, with possible defenses including:
- That you did not violate your PFA order, as you've been accused of
- That the plaintiff named in your PFA order intentionally caused you to violate your PFA order
- That you violated your PFA order but did so unknowingly
- That you made a conscious mistake, but you are deserving of leniency
Once you're accused of violating a temporary PFA order, the stakes of your case immediately rise. You are only one judge's ruling from facing imprisonment and all of the adverse consequences that come with it. Having an attorney to defend you is absolutely critical at this point.
I Have Not Violated My Temporary PFA Order. What Process Lies Ahead?
This depends on the current status of the PFA order against you. Assuming that your PFA order is only temporary in nature, the next step is a Final PFA Order hearing, commonly referred to as a PFA hearing.
This hearing is where a judge will decide whether to dismiss your temporary PFA order or impose a Final PFA order. Remember that a Final PFA order generally lasts three years and may be extended even further if you're found in violation of the order.
Your attorney will prepare you thoroughly before the Final PFA hearing. They will brief you on how these hearings generally unfold and what your role in the hearing will be. Importantly, your lawyer will explain how you can and cannot interact with the plaintiff, who will likely attend the Final PFA hearing as well.
What to Expect During the Final PFA Hearing Process
Your attorney will attend the Final PFA hearing with you. They may handle the vast majority of hearing-specific duties, though the judge may request that you answer certain questions. You may also be asked to give direct testimony about events that led to the temporary PFA order, the relationship between you and the plaintiff, and other aspects of your case.
During your Final PFA hearing, you can expect your lawyer to:
- Present any evidence that is favorable to your case: Your attorney's goal will be to persuade the judge to dismiss the temporary PFA order, and they will present any evidence that works towards this goal. Such evidence may include text messages indicating that the plaintiff does not fear you, witness testimony supporting your character, video footage of relevant events, or any other evidence that supports your request for dismissal.
- Question witnesses: Your attorney may present witnesses who can attest to your character. Your lawyer will also cross-examine any witnesses presented by the plaintiff, including those who accuse you of menacing or physically harmful conduct.
- Question you: If your attorney chooses to present you as a witness or the court compels you to testify, your lawyer will likely question you. Your attorney will prepare you for questioning and may inform you of questions that the plaintiff's attorney is likely to ask you.
Your lawyer will make oral arguments to the judge. Expect your attorney to explain why the judge should dismiss your case, both in opening and closing arguments.
Common Questions About PFA Hearings
Now that you know the general format of a Final PFA hearing, you may still have questions. Our clients sometimes ask:
Do I have to testify during my Final PFA hearing?
Not necessarily. However, your attorney may encourage you to testify in your own defense. A final PFA hearing is your clearest opportunity to convince a judge of your innocence and good character, and your attorney will attempt to put you in a position to show who you are.
What if I have a conflict interfering with my Final PFA hearing?
First, understand the importance of a Final PFA hearing. Whatever the nature of any potential conflict, including work and family obligations, do your best to reschedule so that you can attend your Final PFA hearing.
If you have an unavoidable conflict, your attorney will do everything in their power to postpone or reschedule the Final PFA hearing. The court may grant a continuance, but it is best to avoid having to reschedule your hearing.
What if the plaintiff fails to show up for the Final PFA hearing?
If the plaintiff fails to show up for your Final PFA hearing and does not secure a continuance, this may be favorable. The court may take the plaintiff's absence as an indication that they do not take the PFA process seriously or that they do not truly believe you to be the threat that they have indicated you are.
Our team prepared for every Final PFA hearing as if the plaintiff will show up because they generally do. Whatever circumstances unfold during the Final PFA hearing
How the Court May Rule After a Final PFA Hearing in Pennsylvania
Regardless of which type of judge, special master, or other authority is handling your Final PFA hearing, there is a fixed range of outcomes. Your PFA hearing may conclude with:
- The plaintiff withdrawing their petition for a Final PFA order, in which case the court may either dismiss the temporary PFA order or choose to impose a Final PFA order despite the plaintiff's withdrawal
- The plaintiff following through with their petition for a Final PFA order, at which time the court may either approve their petition or dismiss your temporary PFA order
- The plaintiff failing to show up for the hearing, in which case the court must still decide whether to dismiss the temporary PFA order or proceed with a Final PFA order
There are two primary outcomes you will face: A dismissal of the temporary PFA order with no Final PFA order imposed or the imposition of a Final PFA order against you.
What Happens If a Judge Imposes a Final PFA Order?
If a judge chooses to follow through with a Final PFA order against you, then the terms of your temporary PFA order may remain in place for three years. The judge may alter the terms of your temporary PFA order as they see fit.
This means that, for three years, you may have to:
- Remain away from a residence that the plaintiff occupies (which may also be your residence)
- Refrain from communicating directly with the plaintiff
- Endure custodial restrictions that limit your relationship with your children
- Abide by confiscation of your firearms or other weapons, which you may use for personal protection
- Abide by all other terms of the Final PFA order, no matter how punitive or unreasonable those terms may be
However, a judge's ruling on a Final PFA order is not final. Your attorney will fight to reverse the judge's decision through one means or another.
How Your Attorney Will Fight a Final PFA Order
Your attorney may contest a judge's ruling of a Final PFA order and may do so by:
- Filing a Motion for Reconsideration within ten days of the judge's ruling: Within this motion, your attorney will bring attention to any errors that they believe the judge has made. This type of motion generally addresses material errors by the judge, such as basing their decision on evidence that proved to be false.
- Filing an appeal with a Superior Court: Your attorney has 30 days after a ruling to file an appeal. This means that an attorney may file both a Motion for Reconsideration and an appeal, if appropriate. Your attorney will cite any specific grounds for appealing and will provide any supporting documentation that the Superior Court requires.
If your lawyer is not successful in reversing the judge's decision, their focus may turn to ending the order as quickly as possible.
Can My Attorney End My Final PFA Order?
The judge who presides over your case will set the duration of the PFA order. Whether your order is set for one month (the minimum length in Pennsylvania) or three years (the maximum), your attorney can file a petition to withdraw the final PFA order.
If the time limit on a final PFA order expires, the plaintiff can request a renewal of the order. Your attorney may contest any pending renewal at this time. If at any time, the plaintiff requests that the court withdraw a Final PFA order, the judge may grant the request.
Hire the Lento Law Firm to Help You Fight a Final PFA Order
Any defendant's best bet is to avoid a Final PFA order altogether. Once the court imposes a Final PFA order, you face an uphill battle to return to normalcy.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team will take over the PFA process regardless of where it currently stands. PFA orders are a significant practice area of ours, and we'll fight for the best possible outcome for you.
Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online.