Protection From Abuse or Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

What is a PFA?

A Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order is a civil order issued by a judge that is meant to protect the abused party (the plaintiff) by placing restrictions on the abuser (the defendant).  Most commonly, it orders the defendant not to have contact with the plaintiff, and can also contemplate evictions, firearm restrictions, and other remedies that may be called for.  There are criminal consequences to violating a PFA.

Who can get a PFA?

A plaintiff may obtain a PFA against a defendant if they are “family or household members”.  Such a categorization exists if they are or have been spouses, live or have lived as spouses, are parents, children, related by consanguinity or affinity, are current or former sexual or intimate partners, or have shared biological parenthood.  A plaintiff may also file on behalf of his/her minor children.

What needs to happen to be able to get a PFA?

A plaintiff must allege and prove by a preponderance of evidence (just over 50%) that he/she was abused by the defendant.  Abuse occurs by any of the following acts:

  • 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.
  • Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
  • The infliction of false imprisonment.
  • Physically or sexually abusing minor children.
  • Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

Where does one file for a PFA?

A PFA should be filed in the county where the plaintiff or the defendant lives or works or where the abuse occurred.  An order may only be signed to remove the defendant from the home if the petition was filed in the county where the home is located.

How does one file for a PFA?

Most counties have an office dedicated to PFAs in the courthouse.  One must go in person and fill out the necessary paperwork, including the defendant’s information and a description of the abuse that occurred.  The petition is then taken to a judge, who will make an ex parte (meaning, not in the presence of the opposing party) determination of whether the circumstances warrant a temporary PFA to be issued.  Either way, a hearing date will be set within the following ten business days, at which time the plaintiff must prove that the defendant abused him/her, and the defendant has the opportunity to challenge such evidence and present his/her own evidence.  The judge will make a determination based on what is presented at the hearing.

If a PFA is urgently required outside of normal court/business hours, the plaintiff may call the police to ask which local magisterial district justice is on call and appear before him/her to request an emergency order.

How long does a PFA last for?

An emergency order is valid until the next business day, at which time the plaintiff must pursue normal channels.  A temporary PFA, if issued by the judge as described above, is valid until the hearing where the determination is made for the issuance of a final PFA.  The final PFA, if granted, may last for a period of one to thirty-six months, subject to judicial discretion.  A PFA may be extended, modified, or terminated upon an appropriate petition by either party and following a hearing.

What types of relief are available through a PFA?

Depending on the circumstances, a PFA may include any of the following provisions:

  • Directing the defendant to refrain from abusing the plaintiff or minor children.
  • Evicting the defendant of granting possession of a residence or household to the plaintiff.
  • Awarding temporary custody of or establishing temporary visitation rights with regard to minor children.
  • Directing the defendant to pay financial support to those persons the defendant has a duty to support.
  • Prohibiting the defendant from having any contact with the plaintiff or minor children, including, but not limited to, restraining the defendant from entering the place of employment or business or school of the plaintiff or minor children and from harassing the plaintiff or plaintiff’s relatives or minor children.
  • Ordering the defendant to relinquish to the sheriff his/her weapons, firearms, ammunition, and firearms licenses, and prohibiting the defendant from acquiring or possessing any of the same.
  • Directing the defendant to pay the plaintiff for reasonable losses suffered as a result of the abuse.
  • Directing the defendant to refrain from stalking or harassing the plaintiff and other designated persons.
  • Granting any other appropriate relief sought by the plaintiff.

Where is a PFA valid?

A PFA should be entered into a statewide database through the Pennsylvania State Police, and as such, should have full force and effect in Pennsylvania counties outside of the issuing county.  The laws of other states would dictate whether a PFA issued in Pennsylvania would apply to conduct in such a state.

What happens if someone violates a PFA?

Violating a PFA is a criminal offense.  In essence, it is a violation against not the plaintiff, but against the court, who issued the order.  Therefore, the criminal offense would be indirect criminal contempt, and like any crime, the police may investigate the accusation and take appropriate action as they see fit.  Alternatively, the aggrieved party may attempt to file for a contempt hearing before a judge.  The sentence for violating a PFA may include a fine ranging from $300 to $1000 and/or imprisonment or supervised probation for a maximum of six months.

If the conduct that gave rise to the charge of indirect criminal contempt also constitutes another crime (for example, assault, stalking, or harassment), a defendant may be charged with any or all offenses.

What must be proven for violating a PFA?

A defendant may be convicted for indirect criminal contempt if it is established beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • There was a valid PFA in effect covering the correct parties, dates, and jurisdiction.
  • The defendant had notice of the PFA.
  • The defendant’s conduct violated the terms of the PFA.

While the information above provides a basic overview of the laws concerning PFAs, it is not intended as legal advice.  For further clarification or legal advice, please contact one of the attorneys at Fairlie & Lippy, P.C.