In Pennsylvania, courts issue protection from abuse orders, also known as PFA orders. These give relief to domestic abuse victims and their children. Victims can petition the court for an emergency order if there's a threat of immediate violence against them, and these orders can last up to three years or more, depending on the circumstances of the case. An abuser's violation of a PFA order may result in criminal charges.
What a PFA Does and Who It Covers
A petitioner can file for a restraining order for themselves or their minor children. The order can have various requirements that an abuser must adhere to. For example, the court can make it illegal to contact or otherwise harass a victim or otherwise abuse them or their children. The court may also order the abuser to return property that belongs to the victim.
A PFA order does not protect abuse victims from strangers, roommates or anyone with whom there is no intimate relationship. The victim can file an order against a family member or an individual, including:
- Domestic partners.
- Same-sex partners.
- Blood relations or those related by marriage (including siblings).
- Sexual or intimate partners (including relationships), current or former.
Defining Domestic Abuse in Pennsylvania
It's important to know Pennsylvania's definition of domestic abuse when filing for a PFA. An abuser who harms family or household members with physical force or threatens them with a deadly weapon may face domestic abuse charges. Domestic abuse crimes include:
- Bodily injury.
- Deviant involuntary sexual intercourse.
- Sexual assault and statutory sexual assault.
- Aggravated indecent assault and indecent assault.
- Child physical or sexual abuse.
- False imprisonment.
- Continually committing or engaging in acts toward another individual that place the victim in reasonable fear of bodily harm.
Domestic abuse in Pennsylvania is either a misdemeanor or a felony. As there is no one type of domestic violence charge, its penalties vary depending on the underlying crime. Therefore, the abuser will face charges associated with that crime, some of which can be serious and carry high fines and long prison sentences.
Emergency Court Orders
Victims of domestic violence who need immediate protection can get an emergency, temporary order on weekends, holidays or late at night by calling their police department or 911. Both entities will guide them to the magisterial district judge who is on call in their area. The judge will issue a PFA if they believe the petitioner is in immediate danger.
An emergency PFA lasts only until the following business day. This temporary order allows victims to have immediate protection until the courts open. Petitioners must go to court on the next business day to file for an "ex parte" PFA. If they don't, the emergency order will expire.
Ex Parte and Final Orders
The court will issue an ex parte temporary PFA if it determines that the victim or their children are in danger of further abuse and need protection immediately. Ex parte means that the court does not have to notify the abuser of the hearing and they do not have to appear. An ex parte order lasts until the date of the court hearing for the final protective order, which is typically within 10 business days. At this point, the abuser will have an opportunity to testify and show supporting evidence on their behalf.
Petitioners should notify the court if the abuser is in possession of a gun or other weapon; a judge can order the abuser to turn it over to law enforcement. After a hearing in which both sides present their case via testimony, evidence and witnesses, the court will either deny or grant the final PFA, which can last up to three years and can be extended if the threat is still active.
Filing a PFA in Pennsylvania
The process for filing for a PFA in Pennsylvania varies from county to county, but there are elements that are the same everywhere. A victim files for a PFA at their county courthouse by filling out a form that asks them to explain the circumstances around the abuse and why they seek protection.
The victim indicates the type of protection they seek, for example, no contact with the abuser or a request for firearms relinquishment. A judge then reviews the request and asks any additional questions before granting or denying a temporary PFA. The local sheriff's office then delivers a copy of the petition, the temporary PFA and notice of the final PFA hearing to the defendant.
At the final hearing, both the victim and abuser can be represented by attorneys, and a domestic violence advocate may be in attendance on behalf of the victim. If both parties come to an agreement on the order's terms, they will let the judge know and the court makes the order official; this process is known as PFA by consent agreement. If the parties do not agree, they will go before the judge and state their accounts of the events, and the judge will then determine the outcome of the case based on the evidence.
Violating a PFA Order
If the abuser violates the terms of a PFA order, the victim should immediately call law enforcement, who can arrest them for most violations. However, they cannot make an arrest if the abuser fails to pay support or monetary expenses per the order.
Abusers who violate the order can face charges for indirect criminal contempt and can face maximum penalties of six months in jail and fines from $300 to $1,000. Additionally, if the abuser commits crimes while violating the PFA order, they will also face charges for those crimes. In the event the abuser is arrested for violating a PFA and gets released before the hearing, the victim should consult with a domestic abuse organization about their continued safety.
Validity of PFA Orders Outside of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania PFA orders are valid in every county in the state, every state in the U.S., and on tribal lands due to the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which requires all states to honor protection orders. When traveling or moving, particularly out of state, victims should have their PFA documents with them at all times. They should have a least one certified copy and multiple copies for work, home or school.
An individual holding a PFA order does not have to register it elsewhere for it to be valid, but it may be advantageous for them to do so at their local courthouse. Doing this allows law enforcement to respond faster if the abuser violates the order. However, the victim should understand that some locations will notify an abuser when they register a PFA in a new county or state. If the victim does not want an abuser to know where they are, they may not want to register the order.
- In Pennsylvania, the plaintiff and respondent can waive a hearing if they come to an agreement on the order. He or she may file a written agreement prior to or at the time of the final order hearing.
- Penalties for violation of a Protection From Abuse Order are steep. Violators can be found in indirect criminal contempt of court, with penalties including a maximum of 6 months in jail and/or a fine from $100-$1,000.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.