What is a Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) At its core, a Protection from Abuse Order, often called a "PFA," is a court order in Pennsylvania which tells someone not to have contact with a family or household member, such as a spouse, domestic partner, or child, because there have been allegations of physical abuse or threats of physical abuse. In some states, these kind of orders are called restraining orders, civil protection orders, or injunctions.
A PFA can do more than tell someone to stay away, however. They can order a person to be immediately evicted from his home by the police. They can order a person to give up all his firearms and any firearm permits to the police. They can order temporary child or spousal support. They can award custody of a child to another person. They can even order a parent not to have contact with his own children, even if the allegations of abuse did not involve the children.
A violation of a PFA is called an Indirect Criminal Contempt, or "ICC." The consequences for violating a PFA are serious. Each individual violation is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. It is therefore very important that anyone who has an active PFA against him follows that order carefully and has absolutely no contact of any kind with the petitioner while the PFA is active. Petition for Emergency PFA Allegations of domestic violence often occur when the courthouse is closed, so it is common for a petition requesting an Emergency PFA to be filed after-hours with a local magisterial district judge. The judge will hold an "ex parte" hearing, which means that only the petitioner is present to tell the judge what happened.
If the judge finds that there is enough evidence to believe that there has been physical abuse or threats of abuse, the judge may grant an Emergency PFA, which normally only stays in effect until the Court of Common Pleas is open for business, (e.g., the next business day). If the judge decides that there is not enough evidence, then the judge may decide not to grant an Emergency PFA. Even if a magisterial district judge decides not to grant an Emergency PFA, the petitioner may still go to the Court of Common Pleas and ask for a PFA there. Petition for Temporary PFA To obtain an order that stays in effect longer than an evening or a weekend, a petitioner must go to the Court of Common Pleas and file a petition asking the Court to enter a PFA. There is paperwork the petitioner must fill out, and then a judge of the Court of Common Pleas will hold an ex parte hearing, again meaning that the petitioner is the only one there to tell the judge what happened.
If the judge finds that there is enough evidence to believe that there has been physical abuse or threats of abuse, the judge may grant a Temporary PFA. Unlike an Emergency PFA, a Temporary PFA normally remains in effect until it is dismissed by the Court. The Court must normally hold a full hearing within ten business days of entering the Temporary PFA in order to decide what will happen with the Temporary PFA, e.g., whether it should be dismissed, continued, or whether a Final PFA should be entered. Typically, these hearings are scheduled to be held the week after the Temporary PFA is granted.
If the judge of the Court of Common Pleas does not find enough evidence, the judge may decide not to grant a Temporary PFA. The petitioner then has a choice: the petitioner may still request that a full hearing be held, or the petitioner may tell the Court that it does not want to proceed any further and waive the right to have a full hearing. Full Hearing and Final PFA If a Temporary PFA is granted or if a petitioner wants a full hearing even if the Temporary PFA was denied, then the Court of Common Pleas will schedule a full hearing. The purpose of the full hearing is to determine whether the Temporary PFA (if one was entered) should be dismissed or continued, and whether a Final PFA should be entered.
At the full hearing, both parties have a right to be represented by a lawyer. It is in the best interest of both parties that they have a lawyer, too. The hearing is often a formal, on-the-record proceeding in an open and public courtroom. The parties must present witnesses and evidence to support their cases. The parties have an opportunity to cross-examine the other side's witnesses and examine the other side's evidence. The Rules of Evidence apply, as do the Rules of Civil Procedure and the provisions of the Protection from Abuse Act. Additionally, the consequences of a Final PFA can be extremely serious.
However, because a full hearing on whether or not a final PFA should be granted is considered a civil proceeding, and not a criminal proceeding, neither party has a right to a free court-appointed lawyer. Rather, each party must hire his or her own lawyer. Sometimes legal aid services can help with this, but they often have a conflict-of-interest in representing the defendant of the PFA.
The parties may have the opportunity at the full hearing to reach a settlement rather than going through with the hearing. This may be in each party's interest because of the relationship between the parties, because it avoids the potential embarrassment of having one's domestic problems aired out in public with a recording being made, because it may impact a pending criminal case based on the same allegations, and because it may help each party to get what they want without the drastic consequences that come with the entry of a Final PFA.
If the parties cannot agree, a full hearing may be necessary. The Court's options after holding a full hearing are normally limited to dismissing the entire petition or granting a Final PFA. A Final PFA can last for up to three years and has a potential to be extended afterward based upon the circumstances. A person who has a Final PFA entered against him cannot possess any firearms while the Final PFA is active. A record of every PFA is kept in a database maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police. A record of a Final PFA is permanent and can never be expunged. It may appear in background investigations and may have an effect on employment, future firearms purchases, and other child custody cases or criminal cases.
If a petitioner fails to appear at the full hearing, the judge may dismiss the entire petition. If the defendant fails to appear at the full hearing, the judge may enter a Final PFA by default. Accordingly, a notice to appear to a PFA hearing should never be ignored. PFA Violations: Indirect Criminal Contempt (ICC) A PFA is a court order. A violation of that order is called an Indirect Criminal Contempt, or "ICC." Contempt of Court is the term used when someone willfully fails to obey a court's order, and it is treated as a crime. The potential penalty for violating a PFA is the same regardless of whether it was an Emergency PFA, Temporary PFA, or Final PFA: Each violation is subject to a maximum penalty of six months of imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
The sentence for an ICC conviction can be structured as a flat sentence as well, meaning that the Court is not required to make the violator eligible for parole, and the violator may have to serve every single day of the sentence before being released. Additionally, multiple violations can be run consecutively, meaning they can be stacked one after another, so that someone who is convicted of two ICCs could possibly be sentenced to an entire year (six months plus six months) of imprisonment and fined up to $2,000.
Because an ICC a criminal proceeding with criminal penalties, a person accused of committing an ICC of the Court's PFA order is entitled to a free court-appointed lawyer if he cannot afford his own. This court-appointed lawyer is typically a member of the local Public Defender's Office. Importance of Legal Representation It is critical in a PFA case for one to have lawyer to representing him or her. The law is too complex, and the stakes are too high, to go it alone. This is true both for the petitioner asking for a PFA, and for the defendant against whom a PFA is filed. Where child custody is involved, a PFA can become even more complicated because of the difficulty of being ordered by a court to have no contact with the child's other parent.
Additionally, different counties may have differences and quirks to their procedure for handling PFAs, and different judges may have different philosophies or perspectives on how a PFA should be considered. A lawyer familiar with PFAs, and particularly the local practice on PFAs, can be an invaluable resource in protecting one's rights and preventing an outcome that may jeopardize the right to be free from physical abuse and threats, the right to contact your partner or former partner, the right to have contact with one's own children, the right to live in one's own home, or the right to have a firearm.