Bill to make strangulation a felony again falls short in legislature

Domestic violence » Budget pressures turn bill into a resolution.
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A bill that would require a strangulation offense to be prosecuted as a felony will succumb to budget pressures once again, a state legislator told domestic violence advocates Wednesday.

Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, said the state's ongoing budget constraints has doomed a bill she has tried for three years to make law. Last year, the Department of Corrections estimated the legislation would result in two more people each year being sentenced to prison, adding about $116,000 in ongoing costs.

Instead, Seelig said she'll offer a resolution that urges prosecutors throughout the state to seek stiffer penalties for someone who attempts or commits to smother or strangle another person.

"What I can promise you is I'm not giving up," Seelig told those attending a Safe At Home Coalition workshop on strangulation, which drew prosecutors, police, health care workers and domestic violence advocates.

Seelig's bill is widely endorsed by Utah's domestic violence and law enforcement communities, who say strangulation is often a red flag for escalating violence but is often not recognized as abuse by victims or investigators.

Strangulation is not specifically defined as an offense under Utah law. The act is often prosecuted as a misdemeanor simple assault, but can be charged as a felony under the aggravated assault statute. The hurdle for prosecutors is proving "serious bodily injury" because there is often no visible evidence of a strangulation attempt.

Seelig wants to add language that defines smothering and strangulation and makes the crime a third-degree felony. She said that would eliminate any confusion or reluctance by prosecutors about pursuing the charge as a felony crime.

"We wanted to make it absolutely clear so it would be a no-brainer," said Seelig.

Twenty seven states now have laws that specifically deal with strangulation, said Gael Strack, who led the workshop.

Strack, a former prosecutor and CEO of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, is at the forefront of a nationwide movement to educate more law officers, prosecutors and social workers about how to recognize and document domestic violence that involve strangulation.

That movement is catching on in Utah. Last spring, Salt Lake City police officers and Salt Lake County prosecutors who work domestic violence cases attended a daylong session on strangulation hosted by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The topic now is being included in officer trainings, said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Dan Brewster, who oversees the domestic violence squad.

"It's a new area of expertise that people are really starting to realize the seriousness of," Brewster said.

Most strangulations occur during intimate partner violence. An abuser may attempt to smother or strangle a partner to control and terrorize them with the possibility of being killed, Strack said.

Often there is no visible sign of the attack -- even when death occurs. Many law officers don't know to ask about or look for telltale signs, such as red eyes, loss of consciousness, a raspy voice, sore throat and a rash of small red dots that can appear on the face, neck or scalp.

A victim may lose consciousness within as few as 10 seconds and suffer brain damage within 30 seconds; death may occur within 4 minutes.

At least 25 percent of domestic violence cases include strangulation attacks, said Strack. Strangulation, she said, is often the trigger that finally makes a woman realize the danger an abusive relationship poses to her.