Domestic violence is something the state of Pennsylvania takes very seriously. The law recognizes the tremendous fear and trauma victims and the families of victims experience, and it recognizes the seriousness of the charges being leveled against the accused offender.
Likewise, innocent people who have been falsely accused of domestic violence can find themselves suffering penalties that were never intended for people like them.
For these reasons, it is possible for someone who claims to be a victim to get legal protection from the alleged abuser before the matter has been settled with a hearing.
In Pennsylvania, a restraining order is known as a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order. These are orders are that protect someone from domestic violence. PFAs are rules that apply to the person hurting or threatening the victim. They are signed by a judge and they tell the abuser to stop the abuse or face serious legal consequences. If the abuser breaks the rules, police officers can arrest the abuser and the abuser can face punishment.
PFAs can be granted to someone who alleges domestic violence by a member of their family or household, an intimate partner, or someone with whom they have a child. Though anyone can file for a PFA at the courthouse, and there is no charge for requesting a PFA, courthouse employees are not allowed to offer advice to the person filing, so it is often in the victim's best interest to hire a lawyer to help with the process.
Under Pennsylvania law, domestic violence includes actual or attempted threats of bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual or indecent assault, incest, false imprisonment, and child abuse.
The judge will review the information that is provided by the victim when deciding whether to issue a PFA order. In most cases, the judge will grant a temporary restraining order, which will protect the victim until a full hearing can occur. The judge will also set a date for the full hearing, which will happen within 10 days.
Domestic Violence Laws and Penalties in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania law defines domestic abuse as knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly causing bodily injury of any kind, causing fear of bodily injury of any kind, assault, rape, sexually abusing minor children, or knowingly engaging in repetitive conduct such as stalking that puts someone in fear of bodily injury.
The people involved have to have one of several specific, defined relationships:
- Married or formerly married couples
- Parents of the same child
- Co-habitants, or people who used to live together
- Current or former dating partners
When a victim calls the police and reports that a member of his or her household has committed an act of violence against them, Pennsylvania law enforcement officers are required to make an arrest. After the arrest, it's up to the prosecutor whether or not to charge the accused person with a crime.
Many domestic violence crimes can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, with penalties ranging from taking an anger management class to serving prison time. The sentence will usually depend on what the abuser is accused of doing and if the abuser has ever been accused before. Although District Attorney's Offices across Pennsylvania aggressively pursue domestic violence crimes, an abuser who is charged with domestic violence for the first time may receive a lighter sentence than someone who has been charged with domestic violence several times in the past.
Three Types of PFAs
There are three kinds of protection orders in Pennsylvania. Understanding the difference can help you decide which type of order most closely applies to your situation. The three types are:
- Protection From Abuse order, or PFA, which protects someone who is being physically hurt, followed, threatened, or sexually hurt by an intimate partner, dating partner, or family member.
- Protection From Sexual Violence order, or SVP, is for someone who is a victim of sexual violence by someone they didn't have an intimate relationship with, such as a friend, stranger, or co-worker, when the victim is still at risk of being hurt by the attacker.
- Protection From Intimidation order, or PFI, protects a minor from someone who is 18 or older and who is harassing or stalking them, and who they do not have an intimate relationship with.
What PFAs Can Do
PFAs are rules that apply to the person accused of domestic abuse. They can order the accused abuser to:
- Stop abuse, threats, harassment or stalking
- Leave the house and not enter the home, school, business or place of employment
- No longer contact the victim – no texting, calling, emailing or social media
- Relinquish any weapons and/or a gun permit
- Attend a batterers counseling program
- Reimburse the victim for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred as a result of the abuse
- Grant temporary child custody/spousal support to the victim
- Allow the judge to grant any other relief deemed appropriate to stop the abuse
What Happens if an Abuser Violates a PFA?
If an abuser against whom a PFA has been issued violates the order, the victim should call the police immediately. The police can arrest the abuser and hold a contempt hearing. If the abuser is found in contempt— which means the abuser has violated the PFA—the abuser can be fined up to $1,000 and/or incarcerated for up to six months.
What if it's After Hours or on the Weekend?
The state of Pennsylvania understands that abuse doesn't always happen during courthouse hours and there will be times when someone needs protection right away and doesn't have time to file for a PFA.
Emergency Protection Order
If the courts are closed for the evening or the weekend, it is possible to get an emergency protection order by calling 911. The operator or a responding officer will know which magisterial district judge is on-call and will be able to provide the telephone number where the judge can be reached. If the judge believes that the victim is in immediate danger, he or she can grant an emergency order. The emergency order is designed to give the victim protection until a court opens and the victim can request an ex parte temporary PFA. If the victim does not go to court on the next business day to apply for an ex parte temporary PFA, the emergency order will expire.
A judge will always be on call and usually will issue the emergency order, but the victim must follow up and apply for a PFA the very next business day.
Ex Parte Temporary PFA
When a victim asks the judge for a PFA, the judge will consider the information the victim provides and if the judge agrees that the victim or the victim's minor children are in danger of domestic abuse, the judge will issue an ex parte temporary PFA. “Ex parte” means that the abuser will not be notified before the order is issued and does not need to be present in court. This temporary order will last until a hearing for the final PFA is held, at which point the abuser will have an opportunity to testify and present evidence.
The full hearing is usually scheduled within 10 business days of the temporary PFA being issued. The victim should let the judge know if the abuser owns a gun or weapon when the victim asks for the temporary PFA so that the judge can order that any weapons be turned over to the sheriff or another law enforcement agency.
After the full hearing, when both sides have an opportunity to give testimony, share evidence, and provide witnesses, a judge can decide to grand a Final Protection from Abuse order. A final PFA can last for up to three years and can be extended under certain circumstances.
In Pennsylvania, if the judge issues a final order after trial, that order must contain the following provisions:
- Order the abuser not to abuse, harass, stalk, threaten, or attempt or threaten to use physical force against the victim or the victim's minor children.
- Order the abuser to give his/her firearms and firearm license to the sheriff or police and prohibit him/her from getting additional firearms.
- Order the abuser to give his/her other weapons and ammunition to the sheriff or police if s/he used them or threatened to use them during the abuse.
However, if the final order is a consent order and both parties agree that the order will be issued, then those protections can be included, but are not mandatory.
An Out of State Abuser
If the abuser and the victim don't both live in Pennsylvania, a Pennsylvania judge may still be able to issue a PFA.This can be done if the abuser has a substantial connection to Pennsylvania, such as regularly traveling to Pennsylvania for work or to see extended family, or if the abuser only recently moved out of Pennsylvania.
A judge may also be able to issue a PFA against someone out of state if one of the acts of abuse happened in Pennsylvania. An example of this could be that the abuser sends harassing or threatening text messages to the victim and the victim reads the messages in Pennsylvania.
An out of state abuser can also be served with the court petition while he or she is visiting Pennsylvania and being served in the state would establish Pennsylvania's jurisdiction.
If you believe you are in danger and need a temporary restraining order or a PFA order, or if you believe an intimate partner may try to get a PFA ordered against you, the Lento Law Firm can help you get the protection you need. Call us today at 888-535-3686.