Protection from Abuse Orders, or PFAs, are the mechanism that Pennsylvania uses to protect someone claiming to be the victim of domestic violence. Some states refer to this as a “restraining order,” but in Pennsylvania, the concept is strictly limited to former or current sexual partners or members of the same household. Furthermore, to obtain a PFA, someone has to show that they are afraid of imminent harm at the hands of the defendant. If you’ve been served with a PFA Order and told not to contact someone, here are four things you need to consider immediately in preparing to defend yourself.
1. Do not contact the person who filed the PFA
First, it is important for you to know that a Protection From Abuse Order is first entered against you “ex parte.” This means it is ordered by a judge without you present or knowing about it. Under Pennsylvania law, you will almost always first hear about someone’s allegations that you abused them from a Sheriff serving you with an order. Shockingly to most defendants, this Order is entered by a Court before you ever have a chance to defend yourself. It is vital that you not contact the person alleging abuse, as this is illegal pursuant to the Court Order. Unfortunately, many PFA defendants make that their first course of action. It’s natural to think this is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up, or to confront the person about what’s in the PFA. It’s natural—but it’s also illegal, and will land you in hot water. This is true even if the victim contacts you and says it was a mistake to file against you. Don’t respond to them: call an attorney.
Until your hearing, you are legally prohibited from contacting the person who filed the PFA against you and doing so is a criminal offense. You can be charged with an Indirect Criminal Contempt, which is a misdemeanor, and which can come with jail time. In other words, you can end up in jail for violating a PFA based on false facts. Your violation of the PFA is an independent crime known as Indirect Criminal Contempt in Pennsylvania. Your first call should be to a PFA attorney—not to the alleged victim.
2. Determine your goals—and the other person’s—in formulating a response.
PFAs are usually not filed in a vacuum. They often precede a divorce or custody action. Is the person filing the PFA against you doing so out of spite or are they hoping to get you out of a house so they can change the locks? Do they really believe you’ve been emotionally abusive, or is this a cynical ploy on their part? Is the goal to make it hard for you to move forward with custody? Understanding what the other side is attempting to do in filing a PFA is vital to determining your next steps.
As discussed below, a PFA can be consented to in some situations, meaning you might wish to agree to the entry of an order prohibiting you from contacting this person. This is especially true if basic agreements in a parallel criminal case or custody action can be resolved as part of such an agreement. In other situations, consenting to a PFA would be disastrous. The goals of the parties are a major piece to determining your next step.
3. Gather your evidence
A challenge to defending against false PFAs is in the very nature of the charge. It usually comes down to “he said, she said” in court, and it requires showing that the person claiming abuse is lying or grossly exaggerating. What evidence can you produce to show this is false? Was the argument legally caught on video in the house? Sometimes surveillance footage from a doorbell or security system is available. Did the alleged victim text you about the argument later? In some cases, an alleged victim has written a narrative about what happened for a third party, clearly stating there was no physical abuse. This can be important as well.
Of course, sometimes, there is no “hard” evidence about the alleged assault. It really is one person’s story against another. Having an experienced trial attorney on your side becomes even more important in these cases. Poking holes in a story without hard evidence is a challenge, but it can be done.
4. What do you get if you “win” or “lose?”
Perhaps the most important issue is understanding the legal standard required of someone requesting a PFA and understanding what you get when you “win” or “lose.” If you prevail in defending against a PFA, no one is required to reimburse you for legal costs, and the PFA petition is dismissed. It can be refiled upon a showing of a new instance of abuse—but not for the matters in the original PFA.
“Losing” on a PFA is more serious in that it results in the entry of an order against you to prohibit you from contacting the alleged victim. It can also have a negative impact on your custody case, if one is ongoing, and potentially can be factored into a divorce decree in certain circumstances.
But PFAs can also be entered by agreement, and usually do not carry similar penalties. A PFA can be entered without a judge finding wrongdoing where both parties agree that they don’t object to an order prohibiting one person from contacting the other. In some cases, both parties consent to PFAs between each other. Sometimes PFAs are a mechanism to ensure that both parties feel that they can move on with their lives without constantly fighting over whether their communications cross the line.
But this doesn’t mean that consenting to a PFA is a good idea. Depending on your divorce, custody and financial situations, PFAs can have profoundly negative impacts on your life. A good PFA lawyer can help you decide whether consenting to a PFA with certain agreements can be better than fighting over the PFA, or whether it is a bad idea.
Conclusion: Consult with an experienced PFA lawyer
Having a PFA entered against you can be a serious problem, and can create issues for you and your family. Understanding what your options are in defending a PFA can put you and your family in a position to ensure that you aren’t harmed by the entry of a Protection From Abuse Order. If you’re local here in Berks County, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your Protection From Abuse Order and how we can help you.