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Published On: Tue, Aug 11th, 2020

D.C. and Maryland Aim to Make Strangulation a Felony

Under current legislation in D.C., strangulation that doesn’t end in death is considered simple assault, which is charged as a misdemeanor. In Maryland, strangulation can be charged as a first-degree or second-degree assault, commonly resulting in a misdemeanor charge. In a new bill introduced by a bipartisan group in Maryland and a bill proposed by the Mayor of D.C lawmakers push to change that to a more serious charge. 

For many who encounter this form of abuse, it is usually not a singular event, but more likely a trend of abuse. According to Casey Gwinn, the current President of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, and former San Diego city attorney, victims who have been choked by a domestic partner are 750 percent more likely to eventually be killed by that aggressor. There is also evidence from victim advocates that when strangulation itself doesn’t kill a person, it’s often a sign that the violence will escalate even further.

photo/ jessica45

Gwinn goes on to explain that, even though strangulation can take a victim – often a woman – to within seconds of death, the crime frequently leaves no external marks on the victim’s body. This can make it difficult to prove that strangulation or choking occurred if a person did not receive immediate medical care documenting the abuse. 

For years, the prosecutorial efforts to address choking as a serious crime had little traction. However, increased research in the late 1990s and early 2000s began to change that. Over the last two decades, many states have started to pass more serious abuse laws as awareness and research increased.

“The research conducted on strangulation over the past few decades has had an impact on the way these cases are handled,” says Attorney Shawn Sukumar of Shawn Sukumar Attorney at Law. “This is shown by the shift in making strangulation a felony offense, which has had an impact across the nation.” 

In all but four jurisdictions across the country, strangulation is defined as a felony offense. D.C. and the state of Maryland make up half of that anomaly. Now, lawmakers and domestic abuse activists push to change that with updated legislation.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has put forth legislation that would change attempted strangulation – i.e., choking without causing death – from being a simple assault to a standalone felony, with the possibility of additional prison time in some circumstances. A similar bill was filed in D.C. in 2012 and 2015, although neither bill moved forward. Bowser’s current bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the D.C. Council.

In Maryland, a bipartisan effort seeks to specifically define strangulation as a felony, rather than as something that can be tried as a misdemeanor of second-degree assault, which it often is. Similar to D.C., Maryland lawmakers made a legislative push to change the law back in 2012, but also without success. However, a hearing has been scheduled for this current bill. 

It’s a change that Erin Pollit, the Director of D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiners, wishes to see. Her work centers on teaching victims of this abuse about the risk posed by choking. Pollit explains that the danger comes not only from the serious internal — and hence less visible — harm that can come from being oxygen deprived, such as brain damage, but also from the fact that strangulation is often a precursor to murder.

While lawmakers have said that strangulation can be dealt with under existing assault laws, victims’ rights advocates note that increasing penalties for strangulation can help in tandem with other measures to prevent domestic violence. With increased legal consequences to this form of abuse, many believe that it could be a step in the right direction to protecting those at risk of domestic abuse and other forms of personal violence.

Author: Sadaf Zain

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