In an effort to provide additional safeguards for domestic violence victims and the community at large, the Pennsylvania Legislature introduced legislation in October 2017 to limit domestic abusers’ access to firearms. Signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on Oct. 12, 2018, Act 79 went into effect on April 10. Act 79 amends both the civil Protection From Abuse Act as well as the Pennsylvania Crimes Code marking the first time in 14 years the Pennsylvania Legislature addressed gun violence.
The Protection From Abuse Act (PFAA) provides civil relief for victims of domestic violence in the form of a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order. Recognizing that leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim and when most victims file PFAs, the legislative intent behind the PFAA is to keep victims safe by both stopping current abuse and preventing future abuse. Relief available through the PFA order includes preventing the defendant from contacting the victim, prohibiting the defendant from threatening, harassing, stalking and physically abusing the victim. Additionally, a Judge may order the defendant to relinquish any firearms and firearm licenses he or she may have for the duration of the order. Relinquishment of firearms and firearm licenses must occur within 24 hours of service of a temporary order or the entry of a final order unless good cause is shown.
Act 79 makes several significant changes to the existing PFAA firearm relinquishment provisions. First, firearms can no longer be relinquished to third-party friends and family for safekeeping. Instead, defendants must turn over their weapons to the appropriate law enforcement agency, which includes police and sheriffs. Alternatively, defendants may relinquish their weapons to federally licensed firearm dealers, a licensed commercial armory or the defendant’s own attorney. The second change concerns when the firearm relinquishment applies. Act 79 provides that any final order issued after a hearing must order that the defendant is subject to the firearm prohibitions and relinquishment provisions of the PFAA.
The Pennsylvania Crimes Code was also amended by Act 79. If a defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor crime related to domestic violence, the defendant is ordered to relinquish any firearms within 24 hours of the conviction with an exception for good cause shown. Good cause is limited to facts related to the inability of a person to retrieve the firearm within the 24-hour period due to the firearm’s location. Previously, defendants had up to 60 days to relinquish their firearms. If a defendant fails to comply with the relinquishment requirements, additional criminal charges may be filed. Additionally, the new act requires that the law enforcement agency tasked with monitoring relinquishment orders provide immediate notice to the court, victim, prosecutor and sheriff if defendant fails to comply with the order. The prohibition for firearm possession terminates five years after the date of conviction.
PA Passes Bill Allowing Use of Risk Assessment Tool in Domestic Violence Cases
In August 2016, an ongoing domestic violence situation in Senator Camera Bartolotta’s senatorial district ended tragically following the armed kidnapping and subsequent murder of Tierne Ewing, a local woman, by her estranged husband. In July 2016, prior to the incident that resulted in her murder, the estranged husband had been arrested for domestic violence and other offenses. Despite a prosecutor’s request to raise or revoke bail due to the husband’s history of abuse and the existence of an active protection from abuse order (PFA), the individual’s bail was not increased. The courts did, however, require that he be confined to his home and monitored with an electronic device on his ankle while awaiting trial for the July arrest. Unfortunately, it was during this time that he removed the ankle monitor and then kidnapped and murdered Tierne Ewing.
This tragedy gained national media attention and prompted the Commonwealth’s district attorneys, domestic violence experts and others to examine how our judicial system can better protect victims of domestic violence. These experts believe removing ambiguity in current law so that judges know they can utilize risk assessment tools is a good first step in helping to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
Risk assessment tools help meet the goal of enhanced safety for an increasing number of victims, service providers and interveners who are inevitably involved in attempting to identify the most dangerous offenders and manage the risks posed to victims. These tools have been used to assess both an offender’s risk of re-offending and a victim’s risk of lethal assault. They have been proven to be predictive tools of subsequent offenses and current state law contains ambiguous language that has, to date, undermined their use.
In April 2018 PA passed legislation to clarify that Magisterial District Judges may, in cases of domestic violence, use a risk assessment tool to determine whether a defendant poses a danger to a victim when determining bail.
PA Passes Bill Criminalizing Intimate Partner Sexual Harassment on Internet
In July 2014, Pennsylvania joined a dozen other states in enacting legislation that made intimate partner sexual harassment a crime.
Intimate partner harassment is a term often referring to the posting of nude or sexually explicit photographs or videos of people online without their consent, even if the photograph itself was taken with consent. A current or former spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend may get revenge or seek to regain control of a victim by uploading photographs to websites, many of which are set up specifically for these kinds of photos or videos. The victim’s name, address, and links to social media profiles are often included with the images, and some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Murt (R-Montgomery County), defines this crime as exposing a photograph, film, videotape, or similar recording of the identifiable image of an intimate partner who is nude or explicitly engaged in a sexual act to the view of a third party for no legitimate purpose and with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm the person depicted. In Pennsylvania, this crime is a felony for depicting a minor and misdemeanor for a non-minor. The bill also grants victims the right to seek damages in civil courts.
PA Bill Protects Domestic Violence Victims from Eviction
In October 2014, Pennsylvania legislators passed a bill ensuring that victims of domestic violence are not evicted from their residences for calling emergency services multiple times.
The bill negates a controversial provision contained in “nuisance ordinances’’ enforced in dozens of Pennsylvania communities, requiring landlords to evict tenants from residences where 9-1-1 has been called several times in a brief period, usually three times in 12 months.
Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery County) sponsored the bill in reaction to a case in Norristown, PA. A woman – who was assaulted by an ex-partner who had repeatedly broken into her residence – nearly bled to death because she feared eviction if she called 9-1-1 again. She survived after a neighbor called for assistance. Stephens’ bill passed unanimously in the House in March, but it had stalled in the Senate because of attempts by senators to attach unrelated amendments. Senators finally voted to consider only Stephens’ bill.