Legal Updates

What Happens at a PFA Hearing?

In Pennsylvania, an individual may seek protection from unwanted behavior by filing a Protection from Abuse or PFA.  According to Section 6102 of the Pennsylvania Code, the Protection Order can be applied to “family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood.” Therefore, there must be a prior relationship to seek a PFA.  If there is no prior relationship criminal charges may be more appropriate.  In criminal cases where a defendant has been charged with a crime, the Court may issue a “Stay Away Order.”  This order remains in effect until the case is disposed and should not be confused with a “Protection From Abuse Order” or PFA.

If a PFA is filed against you and concerns criminal conduct, do not litigate the PFA hearing until the criminal case is resolved.  Speak with an attorney about continuing the PFA hearing pending disposition of the criminal matter.  You have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and anything you say at the PFA hearing in your defense may be used a trial in the criminal matter.  Therefore, it is important to be particularly careful if your PFA resulted in criminal charges.

What is Abuse?

Generally stated, the statute defines abuse as; 1.) Attempting to cause or causing sexual crimes; 2.) Placing another in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury; 3.) False imprisonment; 4.)Physical or sexual abuse against children; 5.) A course of conduct that places the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. In many PFA cases there is no direct act of violence.  The petition for protection is filed after behavior the Plaintiff finds intimidating.  For example, a PFA may be filed in a situation where Defendant follows his ex-girlfriend home and parks in the street outside her driveway.  While he is not engaging in violent behavior, a court may consider his actions within the purview of the PFA Statute.  If there is no physical violence involved, the PFA may be unfounded.  Remember the standard is on the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you committed an act of abuse.

Where is the PFA Filed?

The process begins by filing a PFA with the court. In Philadelphia, PFA’s are generally filed at the Philadelphia Family Court.  An intake specialist will review the allegations and confirm a qualifying relationship exists.  If after preliminary review the allegations appear to qualify, there will be an immediate hearing before a judge.  The judge will hear the allegations and may ask questions concerning the alleged abuse.  The judge may issue a temporary PFA order that will remain in effect until a full PFA Hearing.  The temporary order is not binding.  Therefore, even if a temporary order is entered against you there may be an opportunity to beat the permanent PFA.

What Happens at the PFA Hearing?

Within ten days of filing the PFA petition, the Court shall hold a hearing on a permanent PFA order hearing.  Section 6107.  The defendant must be served with notice of the hearing.  If defendant is not served the PFA petition is dismissed.  At the hearing the burden is on the plaintiff / petitioner to prove abuse as defined by Section 6102 by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).  The defendant has a right to counsel, right to present evidence, and subpoena witnesses who may be relevant to her defense.  Additionally, if the defendant is facing pending criminal charges arising from the same conduct she may be entitled to a continuance.  Since the defendant has a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, it may be impossible to effectively dispose a PFA until after a criminal matter is resolved.

PFA Penalties by Law

PFA Orders should be taken seriously by the Defendant.  If the PFA is granted the judge may order that; 1.) Defendant is evicted from the residence where the plaintiff resides without notice; 2.) That defendant shall not have contact with plaintiff or minor children; 3.) Termination of custody or visitation rights; 4.) Orders to pay financial support to plaintiff; 4.) Prohibiting the defendant from acquiring or possession any firearm; 5.) Directing the defendant to pay the plaintiff for losses suffered as a result of the abuse; 6.) Directing the defendant to refrain from stalking or harassing the plaintiff.  If the defendant fails to comply the court order she may be criminal charged with Contempt of Violation of Order or Agreement.  This may results in fines and/or imprisonment.  Therefore, it is critical you aggressively defend any PFA charges brought against you.

Defending Against a PFA

In some cases, malicious individuals may file a PFA to antagonize the defendant.  The PFA may damage the defendants reputation and/or force him to defend against unfounded charges.  Nevertheless, it is critical that you aggressively defend against any allegations brought against you.  In many circumstances, failure to defend against a PFA may result in future ramifications in Family Court and/or Criminal Court.  For example, a granted PFA may preclude you from getting future visitation with your children.  Testimony at the proceedings may also be used against you in a criminal case in certain circumstances.  At a PFA hearing, counsel may present evidence to challenge the allegations and cross examine the Plaintiff.  Effective cross examination may raise doubt where a PFA has been filed without sufficient basis.  If a PFA has been filed against you it is important that you take immediate action.  Conversely, if you are prosecuting a PFA and expect opposition speak with a trained litigator to handle your case.  An attorney may assist you with presenting your case to the court, making legal arguments, and highlighting important evidence for the finder of fact.  If you have any questions about the PFA process in Philadelphia, speak with a qualified Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney.