Protection From Abuse (PFA) - Civil in Nature, but Beware of Criminal Consequences
Protection from Abuse (PFA) matters in Pennsylvania are governed by the "Pennsylvania Protection From Abuse Act" found at 23 PA.C.S.A. §§ 6101-61118, as amended. Upon the showing of abuse, one can obtain a PFA against any family member, current or past sexual partner, current or past intimate partner and/or any person who shares biological parenthood. A PFA can be entered for up to three years and can include multiple forms or relief, such as (not exclusively) precluding a defendant from having any contact with a victim, the exclusion from a victim's residence, place of employment, school or anywhere else a victim is found. Further, a PFA can award a spouse temporary possession of a marital residence, temporary custody and temporary child support.
Section 6102 of the PFA Statute defines "abuse" as follows: The occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood:
1. Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.
2. Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
3. The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 2903 (relating to false imprisonment).
4. Physically or sexually abusing minor children.
5. Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. The definition of this paragraph applies only to proceedings commenced under this title and is inapplicable to any criminal prosecutions commenced under Title 18 (relating to crimes and offenses).
A PFA in and of itself is not "criminal" in nature but the violation of a PFA can lead to the criminal charge of Indirect Criminal Contempt being filed, which can result in incarceration for up to six months, along with other appropriate relief determined by the Court.
It is not uncommon for a defendant to voluntarily consent to entry of a PFA without admission to the facts. The defendant might think "who cares, the PFA is only a civil action and I don't want to have contact with the alleged victim anyway." While this may be true, sometimes "no contact" is easier said than done. For example - if defendant and alleged victim have a minor child that they are sharing custody of, contact is necessary to facilitate exchanges of custody, phone contact with the child, and so on. This puts defendants in a dangerous situation. Once false move, perceived or otherwise, and said defendant can and will be arrested for violating the PFA by "making contact" with the alleged victim and indirect criminal contempt charges will likely be filed.
Law enforcement officials have some discretion over whether or not to file charges, but the discretion varies widely from county to county and even within police departments. Do not roll the dice if you have a PFA against you. If you did not commit an abusive act as defined previously in section 6102 of the PFA statute, then think long and hard before voluntarily consenting to having a PFA entered against you because it can lead to criminal charges, fines and incarceration. Individuals sharing custody of a minor child need to be especially careful of the criminal consequences that can result after entry of a PFA.