In Pennsylvania, a victim of domestic abuse may apply to the courts for an order of protection. Orders of protection contain provisions designed to prevent further acts of abuse. Pennsylvania law does not contain separate criminal statutes devoted to domestic violence, although some crimes carry harsher penalties when committed against family members.
Domestic Abuse Defined
Pennsylvania defines domestic abuse as one or more of the following acts occurring between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners, or people who have a child in common:
- purposefully or recklessly causing or attempting to cause 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
- causing another person to reasonably fear imminent serious bodily injury
- false imprisonment
- physically or sexually abusing a minor child, or
- engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts directed at another person under circumstances that place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
“Family or household members” means current or former spouses, persons who live or have lived as spouses, parents and children, other persons related by blood or marriage, current or former intimate or sexual partners, or persons who have a child in common.
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6102)
Order of Protection from Abuse
A victim of domestic violence can file a petition in court seeking an order of protection. A hearing is held within ten days from the plaintiff’s filing of the petition. The defendant is given notice of the hearing and allowed to present evidence. If the plaintiff sufficiently proves the petition’s allegations of abuse, the court will grant a final order of protection from abuse.
A plaintiff can also apply for a temporary order of protection and allege that an immediate danger of abuse exists. A judge will conduct an ex parte proceeding, meaning that the defendant is not notified of the petition or hearing. If the judge determines that an immediate danger of abuse to the plaintiff or a minor child exists, the court will issue a temporary order of protection containing whatever provisions the judge deems necessary to prevent abuse. The temporary order remains in effect until a hearing with the defendant is held, after which the temporary order can be modified and extended or terminated.
In granting an order of protection from abuse, a judge may include provisions that:
- prohibit the defendant from abusing the plaintiff or minor children
- award exclusive possession of the home to the plaintiff or order the defendant to provide suitable alternate housing
- award temporary custody or visitation of a minor child
- require the defendant to pay financial support to the plaintiff and minor children if the defendant is under a duty to do so
- prohibit the defendant from having any contact with the plaintiff or minor children, including prohibiting the defendant from entering the workplace or school of the plaintiff or minor children and restraining the defendant from harassing the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s relatives, or minor children
- require the defendant to temporarily turn over firearms as well as any other weapons used or threatened to be used in a domestic abuse incident
- require the defendant to pay the defendant for losses incurred as a result of domestic abuse, including medical and dental expenses, relocation and expenses, counseling expenses, loss of earnings, and expenses for the repair or replacement of personal property damaged by the defendant
- prohibit the defendant from stalking and harassing the defendant, and
- any other appropriate relief requested by the plaintiff.
A final order of protection can last up to three years, but the order may be extended if the court finds that the defendant committed a new act of abuse after the final order was issued.
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 6017, 6108)
A person commits "indirect criminal contempt" by violating an order of protection from domestic abuse, and faces a sentence of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6114)
Police Powers & Duties in Domestic Violence Cases
Under Pennsylvania law, a police officer may arrest a person without a warrant if the officer has sufficient evidence to believe that the person has committed any of the following offenses against a family or household member:
- involuntary manslaughter
- simple assault
- aggravated assault
- reckless endangerment
- terroristic threats, or
To make a warrantless arrest under such circumstances, the officer does not have to have observed the person commit the crime; however, the law does require that the officer observe recent physical injury to the victim or some other evidence that corroborates the allegations.
An officer may also arrest a person without a warrant if the officer has sufficient evidence that the person violated an order of protection from abuse. Following the arrest, law enforcement must seize any firearms, ammunition, or other weapons used or threatened to be used by the defendant, as well as any other firearms in the defendant’s possession.
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2711, 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. §6113)
Consult An Attorney
If you are charged with a domestic abuse offense under Pennsylvania law, or if you are accused of domestic abuse in a petition for an order of protection, you should consult with an attorney at once. Pennsylvania law authorizes serious penalties for domestic abuse crimes, including incarceration, and an order of protection can limit your rights as a parent while imposing financial obligations on you. An attorney will evaluate the allegations against you and develop effective defenses to the claims. An experienced attorney is essential to navigating the potential pitfalls of both criminal charges and petitions for orders of protection.