By KELSEY MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (March 6, 2012) - Grabbing another person's neck to stop their breathing—an act usually associated with domestic violence cases—is extremely difficult to prove in court, according to legislators and prosecutors.
There is little bruising or scratches. Long-term internal injuries are the most serious. And the penalty for the crime does not match the seriousness of the act, advocates say.
In an effort to increase the penalty for non-fatal strangulation, Maryland legislators are scheduled to hear a bill next week that would make the action a first-degree offense.
Non-fatal strangulation, under Maryland law, is often prosecuted as a second-degree assault, resulting in a maximum of 10 years in jail or a fine of $2,500.
The women's caucus is supporting a bill which would increase the punishment to a maximum of 25 years by adding a detailed description of strangulation to the list of first-degree assault charges.
Legislators and advocates feel the bill could ultimately reduce death by strangulation by increasing awareness of the issue and prosecuting offenders more severely from the start.
"We want to make it abundantly clear that a person who does this will be punished as if it is a first-degree assault," said Cynthia Lifson, legislative counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
The bill (HB 1074 and SB 612) would explicitly define the act of strangulation under Maryland law. Strangulation, Lifson said, is the act of exerting external pressure that blocks the airway.
The new bill would define strangulation in the law as follows: "A person may not cause serious physical injury by ... applying pressure on the throat or neck of another person that 1) causes loss of consciousness for any period of time; 2) substantially impedes normal breathing or circulation of blood; or 3) causes a person to urinate, defecate or vomit."
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, sponsored the bill in the House this session to educate fellow legislators about the seriousness of non-fatal strangulation.
"It is unfortunate that sometimes it's just not recognized how serious strangulation is," Dumais said. "We will have to make the case that this will truly make a difference."
The seriousness comes from the undetectable consequences.
"Many times there are not the obvious injuries," Dumais said. "A lot of times there may not be bruising and it's not recognized the damage that would happen if, in fact, your airways are cut off for even short periods of time."
The intent is clear, though.
"You don't put your hands around someone's neck without intending to kill them," said Ann Wagner-Stewart, the Prince George's County assistant deputy state's attorney who helped draft this year's legislation.
The necessary physical evidence is hard to come by, too.
"It is so difficult to prove the felony nature of the crime as it is now," Wagner-Stewart said.
Last year, a similar bill aimed to add the term "strangulation" to the list of first-degree assaults.
Though the legislation passed in the Senate last year, the House bill failed in committee in part because legislators said it was too broad. The bill defined strangulation as a result, not an act.
This year's legislation would make it easier for prosecutors to make their case in court through the specific definition of strangulation.
"We do have an uphill battle, but I think it's a good piece of legislation," Dumais said. "Hopefully we'll be more successful this year."
Delegate Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, chair of the women's caucus, hopes the bill reduces the number of strangulation cases in the state.
"Myself, personally, I am very supportive of the bill. I think it will put a dent in domestic violence and help us in our efforts to protect victims both male and female, children and families," Lee said.