Changes May Be on the Way for Protection from Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania

The current system of protection from abuse orders (PFAs) in Pennsylvania aims to keep victims of abuse safe from further harm.  PFAs place strict conditions on defendants, and work quickly.  There are also stiff penalties for violating PFAs.

Unfortunately, PFAs are not always strong enough to accomplish these goals.  While PFAs may be powerful court orders, there are arguments that much of what they do still happens too slowly and ineffectively to really give full protection to victims of abuse.  There have been cases, even recently, where an abuse victim’s PFA was not sufficient to protect from an abuser, and the victim was murdered.  Some PFA violations have even lead to the deaths of law enforcement. Our Philadelphia divorce attorneys explain more below.

What Are the Current Protections in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, there are no general “restraining orders” to keep people away.  Instead, PA uses “Protection from abuse orders,” commonly called PFAs, to protect spouses, significant others, intimate partners, and other family members from the abuse of their partners or family.

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A PFA keeps an abuser from being able to access his or her victims by banning contact and communications.  PFAs can be started on an emergency basis, and be fully effective, before the abuser is even taken into court.  The abuser then gets a hearing within ten days, where facts about the abuse are shown and, if the hearing is successful, a permanent PFA will be ordered.

23 Pa.CS § 6108 lists things that a court can order in a PFA to stop abuse, including:

  • Ordering abuse, in whatever form it may take, to stop
  • Barring the defendant from entering a shared home and giving possession to the plaintiff
  • Temporarily changing custody rights of children
  • Ordering immediate support payments to the plaintiff
  • Cutting-off contact with minor children
  • Ordering the defendant to give up all firearms and ammunition, even if the defendant needs a firearm for work

This at least seems like a strong set of protections, and these restrictions are certainly not the kinds of restrictions people want to live under.  If a PFA is violated, there is the possibility of immediate arrest without a warrant, criminal and civil contempt proceedings for violating a court order, and criminal charges.  In practice, though, there are many weaknesses in PFAs.

What Might Change?

Recently, Governor Tom Wolf has stated his support for strengthening the protections in PFAs to keep guns out of the hands of PFA defendants and keep plaintiffs and bystanders safer.  There have been previous attempts to pass legislation which would have strengthened PFAs, but none has been passed.  There is similar legislation that may be proposed in the near future, which Governor Wolf has said he will support.

Right now, relinquishing a firearm is just an option that a PFA can enforce.  One proposed change is to make gun surrender mandatory in every PFA case.  The current system requires proof that a firearm has been used in the abuse, or that there is a risk of it.  This would make PFAs stronger, since they would automatically bar all firearms, even if they have not been used yet.

Even if someone is convicted of certain firearm crimes while under the current PFA rules, they have sixty days before they must turn over their gun.  If a PFA itself orders firearm surrender, that happens within twenty-four hours.  It is inconsistent that a PFA can get a firearm turned over so quickly, but a proven criminal conviction takes so long.  Proposed legislation would force defendants convicted of gun crimes while under a PFA to turn over their guns in that same twenty-four hour period.

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Under current law, when a PFA forces a defendant to turn their gun over, there is a provision allowing the gun to be surrendered to a third party.  Rules for what third parties may take the gun for safekeeping are pretty loose, too.  They merely require that the third party is legally able to possess a gun and does not live with the defendant.  That means a parent or friend could keep the defendants guns instead of the sheriff.  While a third party who illegally returns a gun to the defendant can be held liable for any injuries caused by the illegal return of the gun, there really is not much protection.

The proposed change to increase protection here is for all PFA firearm surrenders to go straight to the sheriff, not a third party.  This would put the guns under lock and key guaranteed by the sheriff’s office, not a friend or family member of the defendant.

Contact an Experienced Philadelphia Divorce Lawyer of Sadek & Cooper

If you are seeking a PFA for yourself or your children, or someone is seeking a PFA against you, you should consult an experienced Bucks county divorce lawyer.  Sadek and Cooper practices family law in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties and can help you file a PFA and navigate potential changes to the PFA system as they come up.  For help with a PFA, call 215-814-0395 any time, day or night.

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