5 ways to protect yourself against a false PFA

By Karen DeMarco of Scaringi Law posted in Criminal Law on Thursday, September 15, 2016.

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The overriding objective of a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order is to prevent domestic violence and mistreatment. Therefore, Pennsylvania lawmakers and courts have made it relatively quick and easy for potential victims to secure a PFA. Signed by a judge, these special court orders can be obtained by anyone who has a legitimate fear of physical harm. No actual physical abuse must transpire.

Courts often err on the side of potential victims. The burden of proof is much lower than the normal criminal standard. Unfortunately, the PFA is also open to potential abuse - especially in acrimonious divorce and custody cases.

PFAs can and have been used as powerful weapons, especially when lodged under false or exaggerated pretenses. Innocent parties should never fight a PFA alone.

Here are five rules to win against false PFAs:

1. Never take the bait

A potential victim can file for a temporary PFA at most police stations or any court location. A simple form is filled out, highlighting the abuse threat, and the temporary PFA Order is signed by a judge. The order takes effect as soon as it is served on the subject - often on the same day.

The worst move is to ignore it or to confront or communicate with the party who lodged it.

Once the temporary PFA is served, you are barred from any form of contact with the alleged victim - even if she/he calls, texts or emails. You no longer have a right to be anywhere the other person is -- even if you were there first. Leave immediately.

2. Airing your side of the story

A temporary PFA remains in effect only until a more formal hearing before a judge can be scheduled within 10 business days.

This court proceeding can involve witnesses, evidence, testimony, and cross-examination. Often, the alleged victim is represented by a legal aid agency that assists abuse victims. As the subject of the PFA, you should retain an experienced family law and defense attorney.

At the hearing stage, witnesses can bolster a case against an unjust PFA, as well as show any text messages, emails and phone messages from the PFA-seeker. While a PFA doesn't bar the alleged victim from contacting the PFA subject, these communications can become powerful evidence in fighting the order. Never respond to these communications. Instead, save everything for the record and share it with your attorney for the hearing.

3. Motives behind false PFAs

Even a temporary PFA can force one party to vacate the marital home immediately - even if he/she is paying the mortgage. A temporary PFA can even bar a parent from visiting a child.

If the PFA also covers the child - say, for alleged verbal, physical or sexual abuse -- a parent can be blocked from all contact until the PFA hearing.

Sinister motives can be highlighted and scrutinized during the permanent PFA hearing, along with evidence showing that the filing was more about its game-changing impact than a legitimate fear of abuse.

4. Stiff PFA Penalties

Violating a PFA results in a charge of indirect criminal contempt. This is a misdemeanor that carries fines of $300 to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months, with up to an additional six months of probation.

Only a judge can rescind a PFA. Even if the other party tells you he or she is dropping the PFA, you cannot make any contact before the order has been officially nullified by a judge.

5. Avoid False PFAs in the First Place

The best way to beat a false or exaggerated PFA is to avoid one in the first place. If your relationship is tipping toward acrimony, avoid confrontations.

  • Never make threats or act out physically, because even smashing a vase could be enough to trigger a PFA.
  • Limit your communication with the other party to texts or emails, which can be presented as evidence at a PFA hearing. When direct contact is unavoidable - such as picking up the kids - bring a neutral party to serve as a witness.
  • When a marriage ends, do everything possible to keep things civil and business-like.

Should you find yourself the subject of a false PFA - or approaching separation, divorce or child custody-- call a family lawyer. Opting to ignore a PFA will only make matters worse.

Karen L. DeMarco is an experienced Associate Attorney at Scaringi Law and focuses her practice on civil litigation, criminal defense, family law and veterans' law. Learn more about Karen in her profile.

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