Liz McCormick Published

Strangling Could be Seen as a Felony Offense


The House Judiciary Committee is struggling with the definition of the word “strangling” as it relates to domestic violence and sexual offense laws.

House Bill 2240 would insert language making an act of domestic violence or sexual offense by strangling an aggravated felony offense, leading to criminal penalties.

By adjusting this language, the bill could potentially help a person or family involved in a domestic violence case get out of the situation sooner rather than later.

“One of the studies that we looked at found a very high correlation between strangulation and later homicide,” noted Danielle Swann of the domestic violence community at the YWCA in the Kanawha Valley, “and the reason that strangulation was considered with the seriousness that it was in the proposed language is because of this correlation in the hope to prevent any additional violence in the future.”

Swann is also an attorney in Charleston. She mentioned the bill could also cover someone who was strangled even without visible evidence of strangulation.

“Strangulation actually requires very little force to cut off the air passageway,” Swann explained, “in fact, ten seconds a victim can lose consciousness, and in four minutes, they can lose all brain activity. And when looking at the bill and speaking with other experts on the issue, that’s why no physical markings were required, because in fact strangulation actually requires very little force.”

The bill concerned some delegates because the term strangling could be viewed as very broad; potentially affecting someone who was either protecting themselves or accidentally performing the act.

Delegate Geoff Foster of Putnam County was one of the delegates who expressed this concern. He questioned Kip Reese, House Judiciary Counsel, with a hypothetical scenario involving three people; one person handled a knife and tried to hurt one of the two, and the third performed a choke-hold to protect the one being attacked with the knife. Foster asked if the person performing the choke-hold would be deemed guiltier than the person with the knife.

Reese explained that the decision would depend on the prosecutor, but the person who performed the choke-hold could be seen as guiltier.

Other concerns were how the bill would affect things like high school wrestling matches, as well as someone dying while under erotic-asphyxiation by a consensual partner.

But by the end of the meeting, three amendments were suggested to better narrow the definition of strangling,  but Delegate John Shott, chairman of the committee, decided the concerns were too numerous to deal with in one day.

“In view of the numerous amendments we have and the apparent high level of concern over this bill, we’re going to refer this to our criminal working group and encourage them to get with the domestic violence group and representatives of the prosecuting attorney’s office and see if they can resolve some of these concerns that have been raised,” Shott said, “I think they’re all legitimate concerns, and rather than force through a bill that might have unintended consequences, we still have time to work this bill up.”