Protection From Abuse (PFA) ordersJanuary 3, 2018
Protection From Abuse (PFA) orders are not to be taken lightly and must be complied with to the letter. The orders are to be read strictly and essentially mean what they say. This fact should be obvious and the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v Robert Wayne Taylor, II, 137 A.3d 611 (Pa. Super.2106) reemphasized that failure to abide with the orders will not be tolerated – even if the violation was seemingly innocent and justified.
The PFA order in the Taylor case, prohibited any contact between Father and Mother “by telephone or by any other means, including through third persons” except for “text message contact for purposes of custody scheduling only” and “for legitimate issues involving the children”. The contact at issue occurred when, during a custody exchange, Father had the parties’ daughter ask Mother if she had been in touch with her attorney regarding issues concerning the sale of the marital residence which Father maintained was information he needed since it dealt with the possible relocation of the children and the change of the children’s school. Father also followed up with a text message to mother pertinent to the same issue.
To establish indirect criminal contempt, the Commonwealth must prove the following four elements:
- The order was sufficiently definite, clear and specific to the contemnor as to leave no doubt of the conduct prohibited.
- The contemnor had notice of the order.
- The act constituting the violation must have been of the contemnor’s own choosing.
- The act must have been willfully intended to violate the PFA order.
In the instant case, the first 3 elements were clearly met by the facts of the case. The question arose as to the fourth element. Was Father’s behavior a willful violation of the order? Did he act with wrongful intent? Father maintained that his contact with Mother was not designed to abuse, threaten or harass. Mother averred that Father’s purpose was in fact designed to harass.
The trial court, affirmed by the Superior Court, accepted Mother’s position and held Father in contempt for two violations of the PFA. The trial court sentenced Father to 90 days of incarceration for each of the two offenses and to a $300.00 fine for each of the offenses.
The Taylor case does not set forth new law but it does serve as a reminder to individuals who are subject to PFA orders. The orders are to be taken literally and are not subject to loose interpretation. The court will err on the side of caution and the penalty for a violation – even one that might seem minor – can be substantial.