Does Verbal Abuse Qualify as Grounds for a Protection From Abuse Order?

August 3, 2020 | Cynthia Grob, Esq.

Pennsylvania provides a remedy for victims of physical abuse and in some cases, verbal abuse. A Protection from Abuse Order, referred to as a “PFA” is that remedy. This court order prohibits any contact between the aggressor and the victim.  A victim can be protected at their home, school and/or place of employment. Parents can also seek a PFA Order on behalf of minor children. As a PFA is a court order it is expected by the court that the aggressor will strictly comply with it, even before it is finalized. If accused, an alleged aggressor must be extremely careful as any violation of the PFA Order can result in criminal penalties and in some instances, incarceration for the violator.

In most cases, a PFA is awarded when the victim can prove that physical abuse has occurred including shoving, punching or kicking. Stalking, interfering with a person’s freedom of movement and violent acts such as rape also qualify.  However, physical acts are not the only incidents when a PFA Order may be warranted. Many victims of abuse suffer from verbal abuse. In some instances, verbal abuse could cause a Judge to issue a PFA Order.  

A touchstone of the courts inquiry will be if the verbal abuse places the victim “in reasonable fear of bodily injury”.  Then a Judge may grant the PFA based upon verbal abuse. Examples of such conduct would be an aggressor saying “I am going to kill you” or “I am going to punch you out”, then those words could cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury. But testimony as to what was said alone is not enough. The Court will want to hear all evidence including the context of the statements, what prompted the statement, when and how were they made, whether the aggressor has a history of violence against others, etc. In short, the Court must hear all evidence to determine whether the alleged victim has a “reasonable” fear of bodily injury.

If a situation requires immediate action and the court is not open, the victim can first seek an emergency order through their law enforcement.  In these cases, the police will provide the victim with access to an on-call Magisterial District Judge. The Judge can then grant an emergency order that will last a day or so until the court opens. 

When the court opens, the victim must then file a Petition for a PFA Order. A Common Pleas Court Judge will review the Petition ex-parte (without the alleged aggressor present) and consider the victim’s side of the story, and the Judge will determine whether a temporary order is necessary. When a temporary order is issued, the Court generally schedules a full Hearing within ten days. At the hearing, the victim can present his/her case and offer up evidence including witnesses to the abuse. The alleged aggressor can testify and offer up his/her own evidence. Then a Judge will then decide whether a Final PFA Order is appropriate.

If a Final PFA Order is granted, the Order can prohibit the contact between the aggressor and the victim for up to 3 years. Other relief the victim can ask for include: exclusive possession of the shared residence, payment for support, temporary custody of the children, and a directive that the aggressor must turn in his or her firearms.

There are resources available through the Commonwealth and at the County level to assist victims of abuse including the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence. 

What is a Protection From Abuse Order (PFA) in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania provides a remedy for victims of physical abuse and in some cases, verbal abuse. A Protection from Abuse Order, referred to as a “PFA” is that remedy. This court order prohibits any contact between the aggressor and the victim.  A victim can be protected at their home, school and/or place of employment. Parents can also seek a PFA Order on behalf of minor children. As a PFA is a court order it is expected by the court that the aggressor will strictly comply with it, even before it is finalized. If accused, an alleged aggressor must be extremely careful as any violation of the PFA Order can result in criminal penalties and in some instances, incarceration for the violator.

What conduct can qualify a victim to receive a Protection From Abuse Order (PFA) in Pennsylvania?

In most cases, a PFA is awarded when the victim can prove that physical abuse has occurred including shoving, punching or kicking. Stalking, interfering with a person’s freedom of movement and violent acts such as rape also qualify.  However, physical acts are not the only incidents when a PFA Order may be warranted. Many victims of abuse suffer from verbal abuse. In some instances, verbal abuse could cause a Judge to issue a PFA Order.  

A touchstone of the courts inquiry will be if the verbal abuse places the victim “in reasonable fear of bodily injury”.  Then a Judge may grant the PFA based upon verbal abuse. Examples of such conduct would be an aggressor saying “I am going to kill you” or “I am going to punch you out”, then those words could cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury. But testimony as to what was said alone is not enough. The Court will want to hear all evidence including the context of the statements, what prompted the statement, when and how were they made, whether the aggressor has a history of violence against others, etc. In short, the Court must hear all evidence to determine whether the alleged victim has a “reasonable” fear of bodily injury.

Where does an domestic abuse victim in Pennsylvania go to get a Protection From Abuse Order?

If a situation requires immediate action and the court is not open, the victim can first seek an emergency order through their  law enforcement.  In these cases, the police will provide the victim with access to an on-call Magisterial District Judge. The Judge can then grant an emergency order that will last a day or so until the court opens. 

When the court opens, the victim must then file a Petition for a PFA Order. A Common Pleas Court Judge will review the Petition ex-parte (without the alleged aggressor present) and consider the victim’s side of the story, and the Judge will determine whether a temporary order is necessary. When a temporary order is issued, the Court generally schedules a full Hearing within ten days. At the hearing, the victim can present his/her case and offer up evidence including witnesses to the abuse. The alleged aggressor can testify and offer up his/her own evidence. Then a Judge will then decide whether a Final PFA Order is appropriate.

In Pennsylvania, how long does a PFA Order last?

If a Final PFA Order is granted, the Order can prohibit the contact between the aggressor and the victim for up to 3 years. Other relief the victim can ask for include: exclusive possession of the shared residence, payment for support, temporary custody of the children, and a directive that the aggressor must turn in his or her firearms.

Our e-mails about recent developments are not intended to substitute for our legal advice to our clients based on your specific needs or requests. In addition, our guidance is subject to, and can be superseded by new laws, rules, regulations, or orders. Moreover, some directives from the Federal and State authorities can appear, and can be, contradictory or in conflict, so please contact us for assistance.

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