What is the legal definition of domestic abuse in Pennsylvania?
This section defines domestic abuse for the purposes of getting a protection from abuse order. “Abuse” is the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members:
- attempting to cause or causing any of the following, with or without a deadly weapon:
- bodily injury or serious bodily injury;
- involuntary deviate sexual intercourse;
- sexual assault
- statutory sexual assault;
- aggravated indecent assault;
- indecent assault;
- incest; or
- placing another in reasonable fear of immediate serious bodily injury;
- false imprisonment;
- physical or sexual abuse of a child; or
- engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.1
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6102(a)
What is a protection from abuse order (PFA)?
A protection from abuse order is a paper that is signed by a judge and tells the abuser to stop the abuse or face serious legal consequences. It offers civil legal protection from domestic violence to both female and male victims.
What types of protection from abuse orders are there? How long do they last?
In Pennsylvania, there are a few different types of protection from abuse orders (“PFA”). The type of PFA you may initially get depends on whether the judge believes you need protection or not.
If you need immediate protection when the courts are closed (such as on a weekend, late night or holiday), you can call your local police department or 911. They will tell you which magisterial district judge is on-call that night, and provide you with the telephone number where you can reach her or him. If the judge thinks you are in immediate danger, s/he may grant you an emergency order.1 An emergency order will only last until the next business day. An emergency order is designed to give you protection until a court opens and you have a chance to ask for an ex parte temporary PFA. If you do not go to court on the next business day to apply for an ex parte temporary PFA, your emergency order will expire.2
Ex parte temporary PFA
When you ask the court for a PFA, a judge will give you an ex parte temporary PFA if s/he finds that you or your minor children are in danger of further domestic abuse and need immediate protection. “Ex parte” means that the abuser isn’t notified beforehand or present in court. This temporary order will last until your full court hearing for the final PFA where the abuser has an opportunity to testify and present evidence. A hearing is usually scheduled within ten business days. If the abuser has a gun or weapon, be sure to tell this to the judge when applying for your ex parte temporary PFA so that the judge can order the weapon to be immediately turned over to the sheriff or other law enforcement agency.3
After a hearing in which you both have an opportunity to tell your side of the story through your testimony, evidence, and witnesses, a judge can grant you a final protection from abuse order (PFA). A final PFA lasts up to three years and can be extended under certain circumstances.4 To read more about how you can extend a final PFA, see How do I extend my protection from abuse order?
1 Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, Frequently Asked Questions
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6110(a), (b)
3 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6107(a), (b)
4 23 Pa.C.S.A.§ 6108(d), (e)
What protections can I get in a protection from abuse order?
A protection from abuse order can offer the following protections for you and your children. It can:
- order the abuser not to abuse, harass, stalk, threaten, or attempt or threaten to use physical force against you or your minor children;
- order the abuser to be removed from the home where you both live and grant you possession of the home; Note: Under certain circumstances, if you are living in a home where the abuser is the only owner or tenant, the judge can still remove the abuser from the home or, with your consent, order him/her to provide you with suitable alternate housing.
- award temporary custody or temporary visitation rights of your minor children;
- order the abuser to pay financial support (including medical bills, health insurance, rent or mortgage payments) to you or your children;
- prohibit the abuser from having any contact with you or minor children, including staying away from your or your child’s place of employment or business or school;
- order the abuser to give his/her firearms and firearm license to the sheriff or police and prohibit him/her from getting additional firearms;
- order the abuser to give his/her other weapons and ammunition to the sheriff or police if s/he used them or threatened to use them during the abuse;
- order the abuser to pay you for reasonable losses resulting from the abuse (this may include the cost of medical/ dental care, relocation and moving expenses, attorney and counseling costs, as well as loss of earnings or support); and
- grant any other appropriate relief you request.1
Note: If the judge issues a final order after a trial, the order must include the protections in numbers 1, 6 and 7. However, if the final order was a consent order where both parties agreed that the order would be issued, then those protections are not mandatory but they can be included.2
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a.1)
In which county can I file for a protection from abuse order?
You can file a petition in the county where you live (permanently or temporarily) or work, in any county where the abuser can be served (i.e., where s/he lives or works), or in the county where the abuse took place. However, if you are going to be asking the judge to remove the abuser from the home you share, you MUST file the petition in the county where your home is located.1
1 Pa.R.C.P. 1901.1(a)-(b)
If the abuser lives in a different state, can I still get an order against him/her?
When you and the abuser live in different states, the judge may not have “personal jurisdiction” (power) over an out-of-state abuser. This means that the court may not be able to grant an order against him/her.
There are a few ways that a court can have personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state abuser:
- The abuser has a substantial connection to your state. Perhaps the abuser regularly travels to your state to visit you, for business, to see extended family, or the abuser lived in your state and recently fled.
- One of the acts of abuse “happened” in your state. Perhaps the abuser sends you threatening texts or harassing phone calls from another state but you read the messages or answer the calls while you are in your state. The judge could decide that the abuse “happened” to you while you were in your state. It may also be possible that the abuser was in your state when s/he abused you s/he but has since left the state.
- If you file your petition and the abuser gets served with the court petition while s/he is in your state, this is another way for the court to get jurisdiction.
However, even if none of the above apply to your situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get an order. If you file, you may be granted an order on consent or the judge may find other circumstances that allow the order to be granted.
You can read more about personal jurisdiction in our Court System Basics - Personal Jurisdiction section.
Note: If the judge in your state refuses to issue an order, you can file for an order in the courthouse in the state where the abuser lives. However, remember that you will likely need to file the petition in person and attend various court dates, which could be difficult if the abuser’s state is far away.