Toohil case puts PFAs, guns in spotlight; hearing set for Thursday

By Roger DuPuis - [email protected]
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, left, on Friday secured a PFA against fellow state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, right. - File photos

Tarah Toohil is an accomplished lawyer and lawmaker, one of just 203 individuals who represent nearly 13 million Pennsylvanians in the state’s House of Representatives.

Despite her success and standing in the community, the Hazleton-area Republican on Friday became part of a much less exclusive group: She is now one of the more than 35,000 people who seek protection from abuse orders in this state each year.

Toohil accused fellow state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware County, who is a former boyfriend, of engaging in abusive and intimidating behavior, including death threats.

Miccarelli on Friday denied the allegations through a statement released by a spokesman. Toohil did not respond to a request for comment.

“One of the misconceptions about domestic violence is that it only happens to certain types of people, certain groups,” said Julie Bancroft, director of public affairs for the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Rather, Bancroft added, a case such as Toohil’s illustrates that domestic violence affects individuals and families regardless of factors such as age, race or socioeconomic background.

“Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate,” Bancroft said.

Hearing about high-profile cases such as this also may give victims who are afraid to come forward an impetus to seek help, she added.

PFA process

Toohil, 38, of Butler Township, claims Miccarelli, 35, subjected her to physical and verbal abuse while they were dating, and threatened to kill her in January 2012 before they broke up later that year. Toohil also claims Miccarelli has continued to engage in harassing and threatening behavior since they split, including at the state Capitol, where they work.

Websites for each lawmaker say they are both members of the House’s Human Services committee, which meets again next month.

Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough on Friday granted Toohil’s request for what is known as a “temporary” order, barring Miccarelli from any contact with Toohil pending a hearing, which is set for 9 a.m. Thursday, according to court documents. As part of the order, Miccarelli also was ordered to relinquish any firearms he possesses.

Such hearings are supposed to take place within 10 business days, at which time the judge will decide whether to grant what is known as a “permanent” or “final” PFA order, which is valid for up to three years. Both parties may be represented by attorneys during the hearing.

Guns in focus

Final-order hearings also can result in defendants being prohibited from owning firearms for the duration of the PFA. But critics of the existing system are trying to change the law under which judges have discretion about whether to require gun surrenders, and which also allows abusers to turn their guns over to a third party, such as a relative, friend or neighbor.

State Senate Bill 501 would require firearms be relinquished to the county sheriff or other law enforcement agency, or to a federally licensed firearms dealer, by defendants in all final-order PFAs and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions.

Bancroft said third-party surrender is “dangerous,” because it doesn’t go far enough to make sure abusers actually turn over their guns. She also says it provides few safeguards against an abuser getting their guns back and attacking their accuser or others following a PFA order or misdemeanor conviction — a time when abusers may be most angry and prone to lashing out.

One hundred and two people were killed during 2016 in domestic violence incidents across Pennsylvania, PCADV statistics show, and 56 percent of the victims were shot.

According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, there were 39,056 new PFA cases filed statewide and 1,298 new cases in Luzerne County in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available. Weapons confiscation orders are included in only about 14 percent of cases statewide, Bancroft said.

In Toohil’s case, she told the court that Miccarelli, a military veteran, carries a gun with him to the Capitol, and has an “obsession with violence and firearms.”

Critics of Senate Bill 501 argue that the law would infringe on gun owners’ Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Bancroft said it would be applied only to those who are prohibited from owning guns because of a permanent PFA or applicable conviction, and then only after they had been given due process in the courts.

Senate Bill 501 was introduced last year by state Sen. Thomas H. Killion, a suburban Philadelphia Republican, and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bancroft said she understands there could be action to move it forward later this month.

State Rep. Tarah Toohil, left, on Friday secured a PFA against fellow state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, right. Rep. Tarah Toohil, left, on Friday secured a PFA against fellow state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, right. File photos
Hearing for lawmakers set for Thursday

By Roger DuPuis

[email protected]