A Family Court judge’s decision could have kept a lot of deer hunters out of the woods this last season – and maybe next year, too.
Most hunters and gun collectors are aware that a felony conviction will cripple their rights to own or possess a firearm. Many may not be aware, though, that an accusation of domestic violence or abuse can lead to the same result.
And unlike a criminal conviction, which requires a defendant to be found guity “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a Family Court judge can strip away your gun rights based on a “preponderance” of the evidence, a much lower burden of proof, meaning that the accusations of domestic violence are “more likely than not” true.
In a case last month in Centre County, a judge ruled that a man had to surrender his firearms after the court entered a Protection From Abuse order against him. Also known as PFA’s, a Protection From Abuse order can be imposed for as long as three years.
The law allows a judge to require anyone who has a PFA filed against them to surrender their firearms to the local sheriff for as long as thePFA is in effect.
PFA’s are most often sought by battered spouses, who are subject to violence from their husband or wife, or other intimate partner. Depending on the judge who hears the case, the definition of “violence” can range from emotional abuse (threats, yelling, intimidation) to physical abuse, such as punching, slapping or pushing.
Because the PFA does not involve a criminal penalty, the rules of evidence and the rights of the accused are more relaxed than in a criminal courtroom. For example, I had a client who was forced by a judge to testify at his PFA hearing, even though he faced a criminal assault charge stemming from the same incident and his testimony at the PFA hearing could be used against him at his criminal trial. I say the judge “forced” him to testify because he had no choice but to reply to the accusations made by a family member during her testimony. The judge would not allow the PFA hearing to be postponed until the criminal matter had been resolved.
In other words, a criminal defendant was compelled to testify in a civil hearing about the facts that led to his criminal charge, and his civil testimony was being recorded and could be used against him in his criminal trial. So much for the right to remain silent and not be forced to incriminate oneself.
The murky nature of a civil PFA hearing gets even more dangerous considering that someone who violates a PFA order, which was determined using civil evidence rules and a civil burden of proof, will face criminal charges upon that alleged PFA violation. It’s considered criminal contempt, not civil contempt, to violate a PFA order.
In the Centre County case, the man lost his firearms even though the court acknowledged the weapons were not used as part of the alleged abuse. So long as the Wife felt threatened by the presence of those guns, the Court could impose an order requiring their surrender. I know of at least one police officer in Southeastern Pennsylvania who lost his job upon getting a PFA order against him because he was not permitted to possess a firearm. Hunters or collectors should not expect any different treatment if they face a PFA accusation.