Friday, October 28, 2016

Pennsylvania 38th state to make non-lethal strangulation a standalone crime

Posted: Oct. 26, 2016
Pennsylvania has become the latest state to pass a law that will make it easier to prosecute crimes involving non-lethal strangulation, a form of domestic violence that is increasingly reported among victims, according to victim advocates and law enforcement officials.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Wednesday a bill that makes choking someone a standalone crime like robbery or murder — a move that plucked it out of the myriad offenses that fall under the umbrella of simple or aggravated assault charges. The legislation also makes it a potential felony under certain circumstances.
Specifically, the law states that it’s a crime to “intentionally or knowingly” impede another person’s breathing or circulation by applying pressure to the person’s throat or neck or blocking someone’s nose or mouth.
The new offense is graded as a second-degree misdemeanor, but could rise to a second-degree felony if it is committed in conjunction with sexual violence or the victim is a care-dependent person or a household member. It becomes a first-degree felony offense if the victim has an active protection from abuse order, an instrument of crime is used or the defendant has a previous strangulation conviction. Under the old law, strangulation could be charged as a summary offense up to a felony, but the latter was often difficult to make stick, according to prosecutors.
Pennsylvania is the 38th state to pass a law carving out strangulation as a separate criminal offense.
“By making strangulation a felony, the law will more appropriately reflect the gravity and potentially deadly nature of this offense," said David Arnold Jr., president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, an organization that supported the bill.
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said prosecuting alleged strangulation as an aggravated assault, which carries harsher penalties than simple assault, can be difficult because typically the charge requires the victim to lose a body part or suffer a protracted injury.
“With strangulation, the victim may have been near death, but suffered no permanent injury — that may lead us to only prosecute for simple assault,” Weintraub said. “This (law) is going to allow us to better protect our victims of domestic violence.” 
Non-lethal strangulation — better known as choking — has become more common in domestic abuse cases in the United States over the last decade, according to national data. But its seriousness historically has been minimized by the legal, law enforcement and medical communities since most victims survive, domestic violence experts say.
Studies suggest that strangulation is often a predictor for homicide and repeated strangulation can lead to other serious health problems, abuse experts say. But within the context of domestic violence, strangulation has been systematically investigated by criminology researchers only in the last 15 years, according to a study released earlier this year.
One of the first studies to examine it in 2001 found that 68 percent of the 62 women in a Dallas women’s shelter reported being strangled by an abusive partner on average of 5.3 times. A 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine suggested that the risks of an attempted homicide increase about sevenfold for women who have been strangled by their partner. The study also found that nearly half of all individuals murdered in domestic assaults and 45 percent of victims of attempted murder had been strangled by a partner in the previous year.
In Pennsylvania, most domestic violence murder victims are shot or stabbed, but strangulation is the third-most frequent cause of death, according to data from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  Among the 113 domestic-violence related murders in the state last year, eight people were strangled to death compared to 61 shot and 33 stabbed, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s annual report.
“I do believe — and we learned in advocating on this bill — people in general do not understand how dangerous choking or strangling someone is,” said Peg Dierkers, the coalition's executive director.
As little as 10 seconds of pressure on the carotid arteries in the neck is enough to deprive the brain of oxygen and cause someone to lose consciousness, according to the National Family Justice Center's CEO Gael Strack, a national expert on domestic violence and strangulation. If the pressure continues, brain death can occur in as quickly as five minutes, said the Family Justice Center Alliance. But even if the pressure is released — and consciousness regained — the person might experience serious, potentially fatal, injuries. Swollen vocal cords can block breathing and lead to death hours or days later. Repeated incidents of strangulation can cause permanent artery and blood vessel damage that can result in an increased risk of early stroke, according to Strack.
Strangulation has been on the PCADV's radar for at least four years, when it was the main topic of an educational conference with the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association to develop an officer training program; the same year the coalition launched its Lethal Assessment Protocol in domestic violence calls.
Under the protocol, police officers are encouraged to ask suspected domestic violence victims a series of questions designed to gauge their likelihood of being killed by a partner and connect them with services immediately. About 200 of the state’s 1,200 police departments — close to 20 percent — participate in the LAP, including Abington, Upper Moreland, Telford and 12 others in Montgomery County.
Since the coalition implemented the LAP, roughly half of 9,966 Pennsylvania domestic violence victims screened under the protocol since 2012 reported they have been choked or strangled by an alleged abuser, Dierkers said. Last year alone, 1,794 Pennsylvania victims — 53 percent of those screened — claimed they previously were choked by an abuser, according to the coalition’s database.
Montgomery County domestic violence victims reporting past choking incidents involving a partner jumped from 37.5 percent (15 out of 40 screened) in 2012 to 45 percent (106 out of 236 screened) last year, according to the coalition’s data.
Bucks County does not participate in the coalition’s program, but has its own domestic violence assessment protocol, which includes 11 questions that were common issues identified as factors in domestic-related homicides in the county, according to Linda Thomas, director of institutional advocacy for A Woman’s Place, the county’s domestic violence service provider and women’s shelter. About half of the county's 42 police departments use the protocol, Thomas said, though she is working to expand the number.
Thomas did not have any Bucks County data available for the frequency of reports of strangulation or choking among domestic violence victims, but she called it a “very common factor.” She added that victims sometimes don’t recognize the seriousness of the act.
“Often they refer to it as choking, and we try to inform them and educate them to the seriousness of the situation and tell them it’s actually strangulation,” Thomas said.
Law enforcement agencies now can begin working on special training to identify evidence of strangulation, Thomas said.
Among the challenges with charging and prosecuting non-lethal strangulation has been the injuries might not be immediately obvious. Strangulation often presents with subtle signs initially, such as redness or scratches around the neck or chest, bloodshot eyes, dizziness, vomiting or loss of consciousness. Hours or days later, bruises also can form around the neck.
A 1995 study found that in half of the strangling cases, people have no immediate signs of external injury, and 35 percent of the time the injuries are too minor for police to photograph. Without signs of external injury, proving felony assault is difficult for prosecutors. Proving attempted murder is also tough, since prosecutors have to prove the defendant intended to kill — not scare or control — the victim, experts say.

Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

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