There are just four jurisdictions in the United States that don’t define strangulation as a felony offense: South Carolina, Ohio, the District of Columbia (D.C.) and Maryland. Domestic violence prevention advocates in the Beltway region aim to cut that number in half.
Bills have been filed to define attempted strangulation as a felony offense in both the D.C. Council and Maryland General Assembly. In D.C., strangulation or choking that does not result in death is prosecuted as simple assault. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has filed legislation to make it a standalone felony that would come with additional prison time if serious bodily injury were to occur, or if the defendant was on supervised release.
In Maryland, a bipartisan group of lawmakers also has introduced a bill that would specifically define strangulation as a felony. Currently, choking someone can be prosecuted as first-degree assault, but often is brought as a lesser second-degree assault misdemeanor.
Prosecutorial challenges surrounding strangulation come in part from the fact that it often leaves no external signs of injuries — no marks on the body. These serious internal injuries, such as brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, are not always easy to identify immediately following an attack. This challenge has heightened the vulnerability experienced by many domestic abuse victims, who are frequently women.
Casey Gwinn, former city attorney for San Diego and current President of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, says that male domestic abusers are the most dangerous guys on the planet, as strangulation is very often a precursor to an eventual homicide.
While choking is not limited to dangerous domestic relationships, it is a crime that perpetuates there. Michelle Garcia, the Director of the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, calls strangulation a red flag that a situation of domestic violence is about to escalate into homicide.
Gwinn adds that a victim who has been choked by a violent domestic partner is 750 percent more likely to later be killed by that individual. He says, furthermore, that there is a meaningful link between domestic abusers who strangle and other violent crimes — such as mass shootings.
This is not the first time D.C. and Maryland have seen legislative attempts to define strangulation as a felony. A bill was introduced in D.C. in 2015 and Maryland in 2012, but neither moved forward. It remains unknown what will happen this round. A hearing has been scheduled for the Maryland legislation. The D.C. Council has yet to act.