Posted in: Spousal Abuse
While many courts may regularly issue several different types of restraining orders, the most commonly known category of restraining orders arises in the context of abuse occurring in a household or domestic situation. In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of domestic restraining orders — sometimes known as Protection from Abuse Orders — are issued in Pennsylvania every year in order to provide some measure of security to victims of abuse.
The purpose of a restraining order is to provide a legally enforceable order that prevents a spouse or partner from committing acts of abuse, under penalty of contempt, which is punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Under the Protection from Abuse Act, adults (and emancipated minors) can seek a restraining order on behalf of themselves and minor children by filing a protection from abuse petition, alleging that a family or household member or intimate partner has committed an act of abuse. In emergency situations, such as when the courthouse is closed, a victim should contact the local police department, the appropriate magisterial district judge or a domestic violence organization in order to obtain an Emergency Protection from Abuse Order.
In order to obtain a restraining order, a victim must file a protection from abuse petition with the local court of common pleas (or a magisterial district judge in emergency situations). There is no charge to file a protection from abuse petition. Most courts have form petitions that serve to guide individuals in providing the necessary information to the judge, including information regarding the victim (the “plaintiff”), the abuser (the “defendant”) and a brief description of the act or acts of abuse that occurred, including the most recent incident.
Once the petition is completed, it will be given to a judge. The victim will be placed under oath and the judge may ask some questions related to the abuse. The accused abuser does not have to be present for this stage of the proceeding.
Based on the information given to the judge by the victim, the judge may issue a Temporary Protection from Abuse Order, which places temporary, immediate restrictions against the abuser and sets a date for a hearing for a final protective order. The order may:
The hearing should occur within 10 days of the issuance of the Temporary Protection from Abuse Order. The judge may either give a copy of the petition and notice for the final protective order hearing directly to the local sheriff’s department to deliver (“serve”) to the alleged abuser or direct the victim to do so. Regardless, the victim should keep a copy of the Temporary Protection from Abuse Order and provide a copy to the local police department.
At the final protective order hearing, both parties may be represented by an attorney and the victim will need to present evidence and witnesses in support of the fact set forth in the petition. The abuser has the right to be present in court, present evidence and cross-examine any witnesses presented by the victim.
In addition to the relief available for Temporary Protection from Abuse Orders, the judge approving a Final Protection from Abuse Order may also grant the victim temporary financial support for the victim and the victim’s children. Although a Final Protection from Abuse Order can last up to three years, it can be extended.
If a spouse or partner violates a Protection from Abuse Order (Temporary or Final), that individual can be arrested and may be charged with contempt, which is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine. If a victim believes that an abuser has violated a Protection from Abuse Order, he or she should contact local police immediately.
While a Protection from Abuse Order would not appear on a spouse’s or partner’s criminal record because it is initiated as a civil (as opposed to criminal) matter, certain pleadings and orders may be subject to public access, as, in addition to filings maintained by the local court, the Pennsylvania State Police maintains a database of protection from abuse orders and pleadings. Upon the expiration of a Protection from Abuse Order, the Pennsylvania State Police is required to purge all information concerning the expired order from its database. There is no similar requirement for records held by the local court. If a spouse or partner violates a Protection from Abuse Order, however, any criminal contempt proceedings would be reflected on that individual’s criminal record.
While getting a restraining order is never a simple or easy process, it certainly provides for important protections for victims of abuse while setting clear boundaries and legal rights.