Pennsylvania law provides a remedy for victims of physical abuse and in some instances, verbal abuse. This remedy is known as a Protection from Abuse Order, or commonly referred to as a “PFA”. A PFA Order is a court order that prohibits any contact between the aggressor and the victim. This may include contact at the home, school or place of employment. A parent can also seek a PFA Order on behalf of minor children. Since it is a court’s order, judges expect that the aggressor will strictly comply with it. Any violation of the PFA Order can result in criminal penalties and in some instances, incarceration for the violator.
Generally, a PFA is awarded when the victim can prove that physical abuse has occurred including punching, kicking, or shoving. More violent acts such as rape also qualify. Physical acts are not the only incidents when a PFA Order may be warranted. Many victims of abuse suffer from verbal abuse. Verbal abuse could cause a Judge to issue a PFA Order. If the verbal abuse places the victim “in reasonable fear of bodily injury”, then a Judge will most likely grant the PFA. For example, if the aggressor says “I am going to kill you” or “I am going to knock you out”, then those words could cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury. The words alone are not enough. The Court will want to hear all evidence including the context of the words, what prompted the words, whether the aggressor has a history of violence against others, and the like. In other words, the Court must hear all evidence to determine whether the alleged victim has a “reasonable” fear of bodily injury.
A PFA Order is civil, not criminal. In many instances, law enforcement can also charge the aggressor with a crime including aggravated assault, simple assault, disorderly conduct or harassment. When this occurs, the aggressor is faced with civil proceedings brought by the victim and criminal proceedings brought by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
To obtain a PFA Order, the victim can first seek an emergency order, if the situation requires immediate action. When this occurs, law enforcement will provide the victim with an on-call Magisterial District Judge. The Judge can grant an emergency order that will last a day or so until the court opens. When the court opens, the victim must then file a Petition for a PFA Order. A Common Pleas Court Judge will review the Petition ex-parte, meaning the Judge will only consider the victim’s side of the story, and the Judge will determine whether a temporary order is necessary. When a temporary order is issued, the Court will then schedule a full Hearing within ten days. At the hearing the victim can present his/her case and offer up evidence including witnesses to the abuse. The aggressor can testify and offer up his/her own evidence. A Judge will then decide whether a Final PFA Order is appropriate.
If a Final PFA Order is granted, the Order can prohibit the contact between the aggressor and the victim. This can last up to 3 years. The victim can also ask for exclusive possession of the shared residence, temporary custody of the children, payment for support, and a directive that the aggressor must turn in his or her firearms.
Victims of domestic violence are urged to contact victim resource organizations such as the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence. These organizations provide a tremendous amount of assistance for victims. For PFA matters, these organizations may provide advocates to appear at the PFA hearing in order to assist the victim.