Protection from Abuse (aka “PFA”) Orders are Pennsylvania’s version of what is colloquially known as the “restraining order.” What makes the PFA unusual is that it is a civil action, but has a criminal component to it, namely the punishment for violating the PFA: jail.

One of America’s longest standing legal traditions is that a defendant cannot be tried for the same crime twice. This concept is otherwise known as “double jeopardy.” Recently, a Superior Court decision addressed PFA’s and the application of double jeopardy to a defendant charged with several violations of a PFA during one episode.

The opinion for the case of Hill v. Randolph (707 MDA 2010) was filed on June 1, 2011. In this case, the defendant had physically assaulted the victim after accessing her house and in spite of repeated demands that he leave the premises. Eventually, the police were called and he was charged with two counts of violating the PFA; one count of accessing the residence and a second count for the physical assault. Mr. Randolph was ultimately found in contempt of the PFA and sentenced to six months in jail.

On appeal, Randolph argued that the Court did not follow the legislative intent of the PFA statute by depriving him of a jury trial and convicting him on multiple counts from a single incident.

The Superior Court could not disagree with Randolph more. In striking down his appeal, they found that there is nothing in the PFA statute precluding the trial court from allowing the prosecution of multiple contempt charges or the prosecution of the crimes as contempt rather than a general criminal prosecution.

Moreover, the PFA statute considered the Constitutional rights of defendants and allowed for the prosecutor, in this case the Lancaster County D.A., to utilize the PFA statute to quickly and legally send a violent offender to jail for in excess of six months.   Double jeopardy did not exist where multiple criminal actions occurred in a single episode, while the two crimes were two distinct acts and did not merge together for a single six month sentence, but stood on their own.