If you're applying for a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order, or if the sheriff's office serves you with a temporary PFA, you're undoubtedly concerned about how the process works and what this means for the future. It's important to understand what a PFA order is, the possible long-term consequences of a PFA order, the application process, how a PFA can protect you, and how defense against a PFA works. A PFA isn't a matter you should try to handle on your own because of the serious ramifications for both the applicant and the respondent. On this page, we'll explain what a PFA order is, the type of lawyer you'll need to handle the matter, and the best way to be successful in your petition or defense in court.
What Is a Protection From Abuse Order?
Domestic violence is a serious matter in the U.S., and Pennsylvania is no exception. To tackle family violence issues, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Protection from Abuse Act in 1990. This statute allows victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking to apply for a court order of protection known as a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order. See 23 Pa. Stat. § 6101, et seq. (2018). The most common type of PFA issued by courts in Pennsylvania is the domestic violence PFA.
The Protection From Abuse Process
The Protection from Abuse (PFA) order process is very similar across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There are three basic steps to the PFA process:
- Submitting an application
- An ex parte hearing for a temporary PFA
- A final PFA hearing
First, you or someone who has a qualifying relationship with you will apply for a PFA with your local court. Next, the applicant will have an ex parte hearing with a judge to determine if the judge believes they need a PFA order. If the judge issues a temporary PFA order in response to your petition or against you, the sheriff will serve the respondent with the order, a copy of the application paperwork, and a time and date for a final hearing. In some cases, even if the judge declines to issue a temporary PFA, they will still set a time and date for a final PFA hearing. At the final hearing, the judge will decide whether to issue a permanent hearing and decide the terms of that order.
The PFA Application
To apply for a Protection from Abuse order, you must go to your local courthouse and fill out paperwork. The application must contain details about the alleged abuse with specificity, including the time and place. If you are applying for a PFA and need an emergency order when the courthouse isn't open, you may seek the assistance of your local police station and an on-call magisterial judge. If a magisterial judge issues an emergency order, it will only remain in place until the next business day when the courthouse opens.
The Temporary PFA Hearing
If you apply for a PFA, after completing the application, you will appear before a judge in an ex parte hearing. An ex parte hearing occurs with only one party. The court won't notify the defendant of this hearing, and they don't have the right to appear. At the hearing, the judge will look at the facts and circumstances of the case and any abuse you've documented. If the judge declines to issue a temporary PFA, they will still set a date and time for the final hearing. If the judge issues a temporary PFA, it may prevent the defendant from approaching or contacting you until the final hearing, typically in about ten days.
The Final PFA Hearing
At the final Protection from Abuse hearing, the judge will decide whether to issue a final PFA, which can remain in place for up to three years. Both the plaintiff and the defendant have the right to appear at the hearing and tell each side of the story. Both parties can both present evidence and witness testimony and cross-examine the other party's witnesses.
At the final hearing, the applicant must show that an act of domestic violence occurred and that the two of you have a qualifying relationship.
Qualifying Domestic Relationships
In Pennsylvania, Protection from Abuse orders aren't available for strangers, only for certain intimate and domestic relationships. Qualifying relationships include:
- Current or former dating or intimate relationships
- Current or former spouses
- Same-sex couples
- Siblings or parent and child
- Family members by blood or marriage
- Those with a child or children together
PFAs aren't available for neighbors, co-workers, or other relationships that don't meet the qualifications above.
The plaintiff will also need to show that an act of domestic violence or abuse happened. The Protection from Abuse statute defines domestic violence broadly, stating that it is:
"(1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon;
(2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury;
(3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2903;
(4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63; and
(5) knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under the circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury." Pa. Stat. §6102 (2018).
Because the statute is so broad, many charges can be considered abuse, including:
- Sexual assault
- False imprisonment
If you are the defendant and a court has already convicted you of one of these charges against the applicant, your hearing may be harder to defend, but it's certainly not impossible. If you are the applicant and the defendant hasn't faced charges for abuse, any documentation or evidence you can provide will help. If you've visited the emergency room, have photos or witnesses documenting injuries or other abuse, or have any messages or other documentation you can provide to the court. However, a final PFA is a formal court hearing, and the court will expect both parties to follow the rules of evidence. Your best chance for success in a PFA hearing is with an experienced PFA attorney.
Terms of the Final PFA
At the final hearing, if the judge decides to grant the final PFA, they will set the terms of the final PFA against the defendant. The PFA can contain provisions such as:
- Prohibiting the defendant from contacting or approaching the plaintiff, including emails, social media, texting, messaging, and other forms of contact.
- Ordering the defendant to leave a residence shared with the plaintiff. The court can order this even if the defendant is the homeowner, on the lease, or the sole person paying the mortgage or rent.
- Ordering the defendant to continue financial support of the plaintiff and any shared children. The PFA may also order them to continue paying the mortgage, rent, child support, or meet other shared financial obligations such as a car or loan payment.
- Granting temporary custody of children to the plaintiff and providing for supervised or limited visitations.
- Ordering the defendant to give up any firearms or licenses to purchase firearms.
- Ordering the defendant to attend counseling, rehab, or drug and alcohol counseling.
The final PFA can remain in place for up to three years. If the defendant violates the order, the court may extend the PFA at the end of the PFA period as a result.
Why Do I Need a Lawyer for a PFA Hearing?
While the court will allow each party to represent themselves in the final Protection from Abuse hearing, the hearing is a formal court proceeding. The judge will expect you to comply with the court's rules and the rules of evidence. These rules can make success in a PFA hearing without an attorney, especially if the other party does have a lawyer. Moreover, the stakes are high – a PFA can offer protection for the plaintiff but can also have serious consequences for the defendant in the short and long term. If you're concerned about abuse or threats against you or your children, you need an experienced lawyer by your side.
Consequences of a PFA Order Against the Defendant
If the judge enters a Protection from Abuse against the defendant, they won't have a criminal record. A PFA is a civil order. However, the order will end up in a statewide domestic violence database. Being in this database can have serious consequences for the defendant professionally, but it can also ensure that you and your children have comprehensive protection no matter where the defendant goes. While a standard background check won't reveal a civil PFA, an FBI background check or a more in-depth background check will reveal the order. Some professional licensing boards may also require defendants to reveal PFAs against them, and they may take disciplinary action against them.
Moreover, if a court issues a PFA, the police may remove the defendant from a home they share with you and your children, even if they pay the mortgage or their name is on the lease. The PFA may also order limited or no contact with your children. If you're currently facing a custody or visitation dispute with the defendant concerning your children, a PFA order will undoubtedly affect the family court's final decision.
Success in a PFA Hearing
During the Protection from Abuse litigation process, there are really only two opportunities for a judge to grant a PFA application – during the initial PFA hearing and during the final PFA hearing. When you first request the PFA, the initial hearing is ex parte. The defendant won't be present, and the judge will assume that the facts you allege are true. As long as the application meets the state's requirements, the two of you have a qualifying relationship, and your application alleges an act of abuse occurred, the judge will probably issue a temporary PFA and set the matter for a final hearing. While the judge will ask you questions, the defendant won't be there and will have no opportunity to spin their story
The second chance to get a PFA dismissed is at the final hearing. As the applicant, you will need to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that abuse occurred and that you have a qualifying relationship with the defendant. If no court convicted the defendant of domestic violence in the past, and you don't have any objective evidence such as medical records or photographs, your case will be harder to prove. Nonetheless, having an attorney well-versed in PFA litigation by your side to protect your rights and tell your story successfully can greatly increase your chances of success. If you submit objective evidence of abuse, your attorney will know how to best present your case, question the defendant, and place everything in context for the judge.
What Happens if the Defendant Violates a PFA Order?
While a Protection from Abuse order is a civil order in Pennsylvania, it becomes a criminal matter if the defendant violates it. If the police have a credible accusation from you that the defendant violated your PFA, they can arrest them for “indirect criminal contempt.” Even something that seems innocent or accidental can result in their arrest, including a text, a comment on social media, a call to a family member or close friend of yours, or “accidentally” ending up in the same location as you. If you feel threatened or are concerned that the defendant is violating the PFA order, you should call the police or your attorney.
If a court finds the defendant guilty of indirect criminal contempt for violating a final PFA against you, they could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. They will also have a criminal record, with all the repercussions that come with that. While a final PFA typically only remains in place for three years in Pennsylvania, you can apply to extend the order when it expires if the defendant violates the order, which makes a judge much more likely to extend it.
Violating the support portions of a PFA isn't typically a criminal matter. But you can enforce the support provisions of a PFA in family court. The defendant violating the support provisions of your PFA could also affect future custody, support, and visitation issues.
What Kind of Lawyer Do I Need for a PFA?
If you're applying for a PFA, it's important to hire the right kind of lawyer for the job. Not all attorneys will handle this type of matter, but you may come across lawyers who practice family law, criminal law, and general practitioners in your search.
Family Law Lawyers
Family law attorneys specialize in family court problems, including separation and divorce, child custody, and child and spousal monetary support issues. Using a family law lawyer for a PFA may be the right choice, particularly if you are also dealing with complex custody and visitation matters in a family court issue.
Criminal Law Attorneys
Criminal law attorneys handle the defense of criminal matters, including trials and defending domestic or child abuse allegations. Criminal defense lawyers are usually quite familiar with litigating criminal allegations, which translates well to PFA matters. Understanding how another attorney will attempt to defend against the restraining order will be crucial in presenting a strong case to the judge in the final PFA hearing.
General practitioners typically handle a wide range of legal matters. They often handle simple wills and trusts, assist in business or tax law matters, and handle some family and criminal law matters. However, it's important to keep in mind that general practitioners are not always litigators. Moreover, they may not have the experience in criminal or family law matters needed for a PFA hearing. A general practitioner may not be the best type of lawyer for you in this matter.
The Best Possible Chance for Success in a PFA Hearing
The number one thing you can do to succeed in the Protection from Abuse hearing is to hire an experienced Pennsylvania PFA attorney. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a skilled family attorney with years of experience helping Pennsylvanians pursue and defend PFA orders and domestic violence charges and protecting their rights in family court. Not every family lawyer will handle PFA hearings or is qualified to do so. Still, attorney Joseph D. Lento understands the importance of protecting you and your parental rights. He can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact them online to schedule your consultation.