Protection From Abuse Orders ("PFA") | Philadelphia, PA
In addition to criminal charges, allegations of domestic abuse often lead to litigation in Family Court if the complainant seeks a Protection From Abuse order. When the complainant is a family member or romantic partner, then the complainant may obtain an emergency, ex parte Protection From Abuse order by filing a Petition in Family Court. Because PFA orders are often sought in emergency situations, the Family Court judge may issue a temporary PFA order without the defendant present for the initial hearing. The complainant must then arrange for the defendant to be served with the order, and service will often be made by the police department. Once the defendant has been served with the emergency order, the defendant may not have any contact with the complainant or the defendant could be arrested and charged with Contempt of Court for violating the restraining order. Contempt of Court can lead to a criminal conviction and incarceration for up to six months.
Although the Family Court will grant the initial, emergency order without a hearing or opportunity to contest the allegations, the Court must hold a prompt hearing on whether a permanent Protection From Abuse order should be entered. At that hearing, the plaintiff will have to show that the defendant committed some sort of abuse, typically meaning a violent act or threatening behavior, which makes a Protection From Abuse order necessary. If the Court finds that abuse has occurred and an order is necessary, then the judge may issue a permanent Protection From Abuse order for up to three years. The terms of the final order may vary. For example, the order could require that the defendant have no contact with the plaintiff, that the defendant leave a shared residence, or that the defendant have limited contact with the plaintiff depending on the circumstances. The PFA Act allows the Family Court judge a great deal of discretion in fashioning an order which is designed to prevent any further abuse.
WHAT HAPPENS AT A PFA HEARING?
The hearing on the permanent order is somewhat similar to a criminal trial, but the defendant generally has fewer procedural protections. Both parties may be represented by counsel, and the parties will be under oath and able to testify. Likewise, the parties may introduce evidence and call third-party witnesses.
Although there are some similarities to a PFA trial and a criminal trial, there are also some important differences. First, there is virtually no discovery process. This means that the defendant may know only what is alleged in the initial Petition and will not receive witness statements, police reports, or any other evidence in advance as the defendant would in a criminal trial or even in a civil dispute. Second, the judges are much more flexible about allowing the parties to introduce documents like medical records, text messages, and other reports without requiring the same level of authentication that would be required in criminal court. Third, there is no right to have a jury rule on the issues. Instead, whether abuse has occurred and a PFA order is necessary will be decided by a Common Pleas judge who will rule on the credibility of the witnesses and any legal issues.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF A PROTECTION FROM ABUSE ORDER
Although a permanent Protection From Abuse Order is not the same thing as a criminal conviction, a finding against the defendant can be nearly as serious as a criminal conviction. The State Police maintain a record of Protection From Abuse orders, and therefore the existence of the order could show up on a background check of the defendant. Additionally, the Protection From Abuse statute gives the Court the authority to order the defendant to relinquish firearms, stay away from the plaintiff, and even move out of the house if the parties share a dwelling. Thus, the consequences of a Protection From Abuse Order can be extremely severe. Further, in cases in which the allegations have been fabricated, the PFA Order gives the complainant additional leverage to seek criminal charges as the police may arrest the defendant if the complainant alleges any further contact.
DO I NEED A LAWYER TO DEFEND AGAINST A PFA?
The simple answer is yes. Although many people choose to go it alone both when seeking a PFA and defending against a PFA, the reality is that an experienced lawyer can vastly improve your odds of success. PFAs have serious consequences. They can impact your reputation, livelihood, right to possess a firearm, and ability to live in your own home. Therefore, they should be taken seriously. An experienced defense attorney can thoroughly investigate the allegations in the Petition in order to determine if there is exculpatory evidence or if there are helpful defense witnesses. Further, an attorney will recognize potential legal defenses which could establish that even if the allegations are true, the plaintiff is not entitled to a PFA order. Finally, an experienced attorney will be able to make sure that helpful evidence is properly presented to the court in such a way that it complies with the rules of evidence, and the attorney will be able to cross examine the plaintiff in order to show whether there are any inconsistencies or credibility issues in the plaintiff's testimony and allegations. Given the significant consequences that come with a PFA order, you should always retain counsel for these proceedings.
WE CAN HELP WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ALLEGATIONS
Domestic violence allegations are serious. They can lead to criminal conviction, jail time, and even the loss of your home. Given the serious consequences of a conviction or final PFA Order, it is critical that you hire experienced criminal defense counsel who will fight for you if you are facing allegations of domestic abuse. Our experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have extensive experience and proven track records of success in defending clients against domestic abuse allegations. Call 267-225-2545 for a free strategy session today.