Recently, Pennsylvania legislators passed a new law that makes the penalties for some domestic violence charges much harsher. The new strangulation statute makes it a felony to choke a domestic partner or family member, in some cases. Before this, choking would be charged as simple assault—a misdemeanor—as long as no bodily injury was caused, rather than being charged as an aggravated assault, which is a felony. Because of this change, penalties for domestic violence assault will, depending on the case, be much more severe.
The Pennsylvania Criminal Code gives the following definition for strangulation:
“Knowingly or intentionally imped[ing] the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by:
- Applying pressure to the throat or neck; or
- Blocking the nose and mouth of the person.”
Under the new law, prosecutors are no longer required to prove there was a physical injury, nor is the offender’s attorney allowed to use the lack of a physical injury on the victim’s person as a defense.
The change means it is easier for a prosecutor to prove a strangulation charge than an aggravated assault charge. The latter charge requires the prosecution to prove that serious bodily injury was intended by the defendant, and that he or she caused or tried to cause it. As a result, defense attorneys would use the argument that no injury was caused when the prosecutor alleged choking. If there was no injury, it could not be proven that the defendant intended to cause any. This defense will still work in cases of simple assault or aggravated assault, though it won’t in cases alleging strangulation.
Consequences for Strangulation Convictions
Strangulation convictions do not come with mandatory minimum sentences, but they can come with serious consequences when it’s a felony charge.
- The default level of a strangulation charge is a second-degree misdemeanor.
- Strangulation becomes a second-degree felony when the victim is a member of the defendant’s household or family, or a person with whom the defendant has had sexual relations.
- Strangulation becomes a first-degree felony when the defendant has been previously convicted of strangulation, if the defendant has violated a Protection from Abuse order in the process of committing the strangulation, or if the defendant uses any sort of weapon while committing the strangulation.
Punishments for second-degree misdemeanors include prison sentences of up to two years. Second-degree felonies come with prison sentences of up to ten years, and prison terms for first-degree felonies can be as long as twenty years. Judges have a large amount of latitude in sentencing for this crime, because there is no mandatory minimum, so punishments can be anything from probation to jail time. Possession of firearms is prohibited for all people convicted of domestic violence.
Though it’s now easier for prosecutors to prove strangulation, there are still several options available to defendants, many of which are those used against other domestic violence charges. They depend on the circumstances of each individual case, and include:
Self-defense: If the defense in a case can show that the alleged victim struck first, then the defendant might be able to say he or she was defending himself. In this case, the prosecution must prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that self-defense was not the case. If they can’t, the jury must acquit the defendant.
Pre-trial diversionary programs: If the alleged victim did not suffer any serious injuries, the prosecution may offer the defendant the opportunity to enter a pre-trial diversionary program. Completion of the requirements may get the charges dismissed and the defendant’s criminal record expunged. Typically, the requirements of these programs include paying fines, completing community service, attending counseling sessions, and remaining arrest-free for six months.
Credibility: Even though prosecutors no longer have to prove an injury occurred to prove strangulation if the alleged victim doesn’t have any, it’s possible to show that he or she is lying about his or her story. For example, if the victim says he or she was strangled for a long time but has no bruises or other marks on their neck, the defense might be able to show that he or she made it all up. Also, the defense can, while cross-examining the victim, uncover motives for lying about the alleged attack on the part of the victim. These motives can include financial gain, jealousy, or trying to become a lawful immigrant. Every person charged with a crime in Pennsylvania has the right to a trial with a judge, or a trial by jury, and prosecutors must prove every charge beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even though prosecutors do not have to prove an injury happened, if the judge or jury does not believe the victim, the case can result in an acquittal.