Who Can Provide Sufficient Notice of a Final PFA Order?
Commonwealth v. Stevenson, 249 A.3d 1164 (Pa. Super. 2021) (unreported), allocatur granted Aug. 17, 2021, appeal docket 83 WAL 2021
Ashley Yates filed a temporary petition for protection from abuse against her former fiancé, Viktor Stevenson, on August 23, 2019. Stevenson was served the same day. A final hearing on the PFA was held on September 9, 2019. Though Stevenson was advised of the date of the final hearing, he did not attend. Pursuant to a final order stemming from the September 9th hearing, Stevenson was prohibited from having contact with Yates until September 9, 2021.
On September 12, 2019 at 3:30am, Stevenson was caught rummaging in the basement of Yate’s home by Danielle Sutton, Yates’ cousin, who was living there with her children. Sutton told Stevenson that he was not allowed to be in Yates’ house because an active PFA order with a two-year duration prohibited it. Stevenson told Sutton that he intended to leave and asked her not to call the police. He left, taking Yates’ dog and property to which he believed he was entitled. The following morning, Sutton discovered that Stevenson had repositioned the video surveillance cameras that Yates had installed around her house so that they pointed up. She contacted the Wilkinsburg Police and explained her encounter with Stevenson to the officers who arrived at the house. The police began searching for the missing dog. Between approximately 10:00am and 11:00am, Stevenson returned to Yates’ home with the dog.
Stevenson was charged with violating 23 Pa.C.S. § 6114, which prohibits indirect criminal contempt. To prove such a violation, a prosecutor must show that 1) the PFA order in question was sufficiently clear to the defendant; 2) the defendant had notice of the order; 3) the allegedly wrongful conduct was prohibited by the order; and 4) the intent of the defendant was wrongful.
On October 25, 2019, Stevenson was found guilty of indirect criminal contempt for violating the PFA order. Stevenson appealed the conviction to the Superior Court, arguing that the Commonwealth failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had proper notice of the final PFA order. He asserted that:
there was no evidence that an attempt was made to serve [Stevenson] with the final PFA order, as the Commonwealth produced no evidence that the final PFA order was issued to the police or sheriff to enforce the order. Additionally, the Commonwealth produced no evidence that the police or sheriff spoke to [Stevenson] over the telephone (or left him a voice message) explaining that a final PFA order had been entered against him, and the consequences if he failed to abide by it.
Slip op. at 4 (citing Appellant’s Brief at 10). Stevenson emphasized that notice of a PFA must be provided specifically by police officers, relying on Commonwealth v. Padilla, 885 A.2d 994, 996-997 (Pa. Super. 2005) (internal citations and quotations omitted), appeal denied, 897 A.2d 454 (Pa. 2006).
The Superior Court upheld Stevenson’s conviction. Citing a variety of cases, including Padilla, the Court explained that “for purposes of proving indirect criminal contempt, verbal communications can adequately convey notice that a PFA order has been entered against the defendant and that a violation of that order places the defendant at risk of criminal sanctions.” Slip op. at 5. The Court reasoned that Sutton’s warning to Stevenson about the active PFA order provided adequate evidentiary support for a finding that he knew about the order. His request that Sutton refrain from calling the police and his redirection of Yates’ surveillance cameras corroborated the evidence that he was aware of the order and understood its import. Thus, when Stevenson returned to Yates’ home a second time, he violated the PFA order and statute. The Court also explained that “[a]lthough the Commonwealth established the notice requirement in Padilla through an officer’s telephone communications with the defendant, our review of that decision confirms that the ‘officer’ status of the informing party was neither significant nor germane to our conclusion.” Slip op. at 7-8.
Stevenson appealed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider one question:
Whether the Superior Court misinterpreted Commonwealth v. Padilla, 885 A.2d 994 (Pa. Super. 2005), and, therefore, erred in concluding that constructive notice of the order or decree in question, so as to support a conviction for Indirect Criminal Contempt, can be provided to the defendant by a person who was neither a law enforcement officer tasked with enforcing the order nor designed by the court to provide such notice?