Philadelphia County has over 1.5 million residents and is home to the largest city in Pennsylvania. The city itself experiences over 100,000 reported emergency calls involving domestic violence each year. Currently, there are only two women's shelters serving Philadelphia's city proper. Philadelphia County's Court of Common Pleas serves all needs of victims of domestic violence through its Domestic Relations division. Along with the other family law services provided by the court, the Domestic Relations division also handles the issuance and requests for PFA orders.
Domestic Violence in Philadelphia County
Domestic violence is not well-defined in PA. Under the Protection from Abuse Act, domestic violence is, broadly, recklessly, intentionally, or knowingly causing bodily harm, or placing a person you have a certain relationship with, in reasonable fear of physical harm. It also includes acts of sexual violence (or threats of sexual violence) and false imprisonment.
The Definition of Household Member
Under Section 6102 of the Act, household members include spouses, ex-partners, and current intimate partners. It also includes roommates, those who share a biological child, and children (children require an adult to petition on their behalf).
Examples of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence or abuse can range from any non-violent but threatening behavior, such as stalking, to violent or aggressive physical behavior, such as kicking, shoving, rape, and assault with a weapon. Even if the victim merely has reasonable cause to believe that the defendant will harm them, it can be considered domestic abuse or violence.
How Children Are Protected from Domestic Violence
Child abuse is not always domestic violence. It depends on the relationship between the alleged perpetrator and the child.
- If there's a domestic relationship – meaning they're household members as defined above – child abuse can be considered domestic violence.
- If there's no domestic relationship, child abuse may not be domestic violence, but it's still punishable as a crime.
PA takes the protection of children very seriously. Any accusations of child abuse, particularly in a domestic setting, can have severe consequences and prevent a person from seeing, communicating with, or gaining custody of a child. Call the Lento Law Firm now at 888.535.3686 if you need advice on a matter concerning children.
Who Can't Allege Domestic Violence
Neighbors, friends, coworkers, and landlords are generally excluded unless the parties have an intimate relationship. Other restraining orders or protective orders may be available, and if the victim is in physical danger, they should always call 911 for immediate assistance.
Protections Available for Domestic Violence in Philadelphia County
Domestic violence victims have the option of contacting the police if they feel they're in immediate physical danger or filing for a protective order.
If the police have probable cause to believe an incident of domestic violence took place, they can arrest the accused without a warrant. “Probable cause” means there's evidence of physical injury or other corroborating evidence.
At the point of the arrest, police officers may also seize any firearms belonging to the defendant. The defendant will be arraigned and, normally, have a hearing within 72 hours of the arrest.
Civil Protection Orders
Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders are restraining orders reserved for domestic violence victims. They help to keep victims safe by preventing the alleged abuser from behaving in certain ways.
- Victims can request out-of-hours emergency PFAs if they believe they're in immediate danger. Otherwise, the first PFA issued during regular hours will be a temporary PFA which is good for 10 days until a hearing takes place.
- Final PFA orders, if granted, last for at least three years – they can be renewed as many times as required. They can also be amended, vacated, or dissolved if the defendant is no longer deemed a threat and the PFA order is unduly restrictive.
How to Request a PFA in Philadelphia County
When someone wishes to request a PFA in Philadelphia County, there is a relatively simple process. This is done for the ease of any victims to get a response and action quickly. It is important to remember that in the event of an emergency, it is best to contact emergency responders through 911. This way, if an emergency response is necessary, the authorities are informed, and following the response, they can direct the victim to the process for requesting a PFA.
The Court Process
If a victim has an opportunity to go to court to request a PFA, they need to fill out the required form and deliver it to a representative of the Domestic Relations division in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The petition must be filed with the original and two copies. It is important to understand that a temporary order will not be granted if the plaintiff does not make out an adequate claim for a PFA.
If a temporary order is issued, the defendant must be served the PFA through either the police or another server. If the defendant cannot be served through either of these means for whatever reason, the court may allow a different manner of serving, such as mail. Victims should always carry their temporary PFA order on their person. Any fees for filing a PFA and all court fees will be charged to the defendant. If a final PFA order is granted, the defendant will also be charged with the fees from this filing.
Final PFA Hearing
When it comes time for an actual PFA hearing, both defendant and plaintiff must be in attendance. In the scope of a domestic violence claim, this does mean that the alleged abuser will have a chance to defend themselves against the victim's claims in court. For this reason, it will be beneficial to retain the services of an experienced Philadelphia PFA attorney. If the alleged abuser does not present themselves in court after being served, a bench warrant can be issued, and/or a final PFA order can be issued.
Impact of PFA Hearings on Related Proceedings
PFA hearings are often separate from any ongoing custody or other hearings, however, they will likely affect these proceedings, especially when it comes to custody. PFA defendants may have an order brought up in court against them when determining other matters of family law.
The Outcome of PFA Hearings
At the final PFA hearing, the judge may either grant the final PFA order or dismiss the petitioner's case. If either party wishes to appeal the decision, they may do so within 10 days by filing a Motion of Reconsideration with the court. Or they can file a formal appeal with the PA Superior Court within 30 days.
A final PFA hearing does not affect pending criminal proceedings. So, even if the judge grants a final PFA, this doesn't mean that the defendant will be found guilty of a criminal offense.
Whether or not a victim decides to file for a PFA or have a defendant arrested depends on the facts of the case. In some cases, a victim may not pursue a PFA if there's a criminal case pending, whereas, in others, they might feel safer knowing there's a PFA order in place, especially if the defendant gets bail.
Consequences of Domestic Violence Allegations
There are civil and potentially criminal consequences to domestic violence allegations.
Although there's no specific crime of domestic violence, a person can be arrested for crimes committed against household members, e.g., assault or rape. If convicted, the defendant faces penalties for either misdemeanor or felony crimes, such as financial penalties and jail time.
PFAs are restrictive. They can prevent individuals from doing simple things such as returning home, collecting their property, and even going to work. In some cases, they can affect child custody, visitation, and divorce settlements. It's also not uncommon for those subject to PFAs to lose various rights, such as the right to own a firearm.
Final PFA orders are civil orders, so they won't go on the defendant's criminal record (unless they violate the order). However, they are discoverable by law enforcement, the courts, and even the public in some circumstances, as they are kept in a statewide police database.
If the defendant is arrested for or convicted of a crime, this will affect their criminal record.
How a Family Law Attorney Can Help with Domestic Violence Matters
Just as every family is different, every domestic violence matter is unique. As such, you need – and deserve – experienced representation to guide you through the legal process. Given how serious domestic violence issues can be and how significantly they can impact someone's life, don't attempt to deal with the situation alone.
If you or a loved one is undergoing PFA order proceedings in Philadelphia County, or other matters of family law, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Domestic Violence Team today. You can reach the firm on 888.535.3686 or tell us about your case online.