Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Laws

Understand how Pennsylvania defines domestic violence crimes and their penalties.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated April 16, 2024

In Pennsylvania, domestic abuse can result in mandatory arrests, protection orders, criminal charges, and firearm restrictions. Read on to learn more.

What Is Domestic Abuse in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania law defines domestic abuse as a physical or sexual assault by a family or household member.

Family or household members include:

  • current and former spouses
  • persons who live or have lived together as spouses
  • parents and children
  • persons related by blood or marriage
  • current and former sexual or intimate partners, and
  • co-parents (someone with whom they share a child).

The definition of abuse also includes placing a victim in reasonable fear of harm, whether by threats, stalking, or harassment.

(23 Pa. C.S.A. § 6102 (2024).)

Domestic Violence Crimes and Penalties in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania doesn't have a crime specific to domestic violence. However, the law imposes several enhancements for offenses involving domestic violence. This section reviews some of the most common domestic violence offenses.

Assault and Aggravated Assault

Assault and aggravated assault are two of the most common domestic violence crimes.

Assault. A person commits assault by causing or attempting to cause bodily harm to another or by placing someone in fear of immediate harm. Simple assault is a misdemeanor of the second degree.

Aggravated assault. The crime increases to aggravated assault when the defendant uses a deadly weapon or causes or attempts to cause serious bodily harm. These crimes are felonies of the first and second degrees.

Misdemeanors of the second degree carry up to two years' incarceration and a $5,000 fine. A person convicted of a first- or second-degree felony faces up to 10 or 20 years of prison time and a $25,000 fine.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 2701, 2702 (2024).)

Strangulation Crimes

Strangulation is another common domestic abuse offense. A person who tries to obstruct another's breathing or circulation by applying pressure to their throat or neck or by blocking their nose or mouth commits the crime of strangulation (even if no physical injuries result).

This crime carries felony penalties when it's committed against a family or household member or in violation of an active protection from abuse order. First- and second-degree felonies carry up to 10 or 20 years of prison time and a $25,000 fine.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2718 (2024).)

Harassment and Stalking Crimes

Harassing or stalking a family or household member is another form of domestic abuse.

Harassment crimes in Pennsylvania can involve a wide range of acts, including subjecting a person to offensive physical contact, following someone, or engaging in repeat conduct or communications that serve no legitimate purpose. These offenses are punishable as summary offenses (up to 90 days in jail) or misdemeanors of the third degree (up to one year in jail). However, the penalty level increases by a degree if the person has a prior conviction for violating a protection order involving the same family or household member.

Stalking offenses involve a defendant who engages in repeated conduct or communications that show intent to place the victim in fear of bodily harm or to cause substantial emotional distress. A first offense is a misdemeanor of the first degree unless the defendant has a prior violent conviction involving the same family or household member. In this case, the crime carries penalties for a felony of the third degree. This felony penalty also applies to repeat stalking convictions. A first-degree misdemeanor carries up to five years of incarceration, and a third-degree felony carries up to seven years.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 2709, 2709.1 (2024).)

Terroristic Threats

It's a misdemeanor of the first degree to terrorize another by threatening to commit a crime of violence against them. It doesn't matter if the defendant makes the threats in person or over the phone, text, email, or other internet communications. A person convicted of this misdemeanor level faces up to seven years of incarceration.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2706 (2024).)

Violation of a Protection From Abuse (PFA) Order

A victim of domestic abuse can seek a court order—called a protection from abuse (PFA) order—directing the abuser not to contact or harm the victim. Judges issue PFA orders in civil court. In criminal cases involving violence, a judge can also issue a protective order or stay-away order against a defendant.

A defendant who violates a protection order commits criminal contempt, punishable by up to 6 months of jail time and fines. Each separate violation counts as contempt, allowing the judge to sentence the defendant up to 6 months for each occurrence. The court must also extend the protection order upon a conviction.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 4954, 4955; 23 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 6108, 6114 (2024).)

Arrest, Bail, and Firearm Restrictions for Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania

In addition to imprisonment, Pennsylvania law establishes the following conditions, restrictions, and penalties for domestic abuse cases.

Domestic Violence Arrests

Pennsylvania law requires police to arrest a person for violating a PFA order. Police can also make probable cause arrests in other domestic violence cases even if the officer did not see the offense. If the defendant allegedly used a weapon, the officer must seize those weapons after the arrest. Police cannot release the defendant until they appear before a judge.

Bail and Pretrial Release in Domestic Violence Cases

A judge must consider the risk of danger to the victim before releasing the defendant on bail. If the victim is at risk for further abuse, the judge must issue a protection order as a bail condition. Defendants who violate this order can be arrested and held in jail without bail.

Firearm Restrictions in Domestic Violence Cases

Both state and federal laws impose firearm restrictions for misdemeanor and felony convictions relating to domestic violence. Judges in Pennsylvania can also prohibit firearm possession by persons subject to PFA orders. A violation by a prohibited person can mean misdemeanor or felony penalties, depending on the circumstances of the offense.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 2711, 6105; 23 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 6108, 6113, 6114; 18 U.S.C. § 922 (2024).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you face charges relating to domestic violence, talk to a criminal defense lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you understand what the charges mean, what penalties are possible, and whether a protection order or any firearm restrictions are in place. You may also want to consult an attorney if you're served with a petition for a protection from abuse order.

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