Strangulation - A New Crime in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Legislature recently enacted a new statute which increases the potential penalties in many domestic violence cases. Under the new strangulation statute, it is now often a felony to choke a family member or domestic partner. Previously, choking which did not cause serious bodily injury would often be graded as a misdemeanor Simple Assault instead of a felony Aggravated Assault. Therefore, the strangulation statute has the potential to drastically increase the consequences of a domestic assault allegation.
What is strangulation?
Pennsylvania law defines strangulation as:
"knowingly or intentionally imped[ing] the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by:
(1) applying pressure to the throat or neck; or
(2) blocking the nose and mouth of the person."
The statute specifically negates any requirement that the prosecution prove an actual physical injury. The law provides:
"Infliction of a physical injury to a victim shall not be an element of the offense. The lack of physical injury to a victim shall not be a defense in a prosecution under this section."
This makes it easier for the prosecution to prove strangulation than to prove Aggravated Assault. Aggravated Assault requires the Commonwealth to prove that the defendant caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury. Thus, in Aggravated Assault cases where the prosecution alleged choking of some kind, it was often a defense to the charge that the defendant did not cause any injury. If the defendant did not cause injury despite the choking, then the defense could argue that the defendant likely was not attempting to cause serious bodily injury. Although this defense would still remain viable against an Aggravated or Simple Assault charge, a lack of injury does not provide a legal defense to strangulation.
What are the penalties for Strangulation?
A conviction for strangulation does not require a judge to impose a mandatory minimum sentence at sentencing. However, it is a serious charge because it is often a felony.
- By default, strangulation is a misdemeanor of the second degree.
- However, it becomes a felony of the second degree when the crime is committed against a family member, household member, or complainant with whom the defendant has had a sexual relationship.
- It becomes a felony of the first degree when the defendant has a prior conviction for strangulation, if the defendant uses a weapon during the commission of the offense, or if the complainant has an active Protection From Abuse order against the defendant.
Misdemeanors of the second degree are punishable by up to two years in prison. Second degree felonies are punishable by ten years in prison, and first degree felonies may be punished by up to twenty years in prison. Because there is no mandatory minimum, the judge has a tremendous amount of discretion when deciding on a sentence for a strangulation conviction, and a sentence could range from probation to jail time. All convictions for domestic violence prohibit the defendant from possessing a firearm.
What are the defenses to strangulation charges?
Despite the reduced legal burden for the prosecution in terms of proving strangulation, there are still a number of potential defense to this charge. Many of the defenses are the same as the defenses available in all domestic violence cases. Depending on the circumstances of the case, potential defenses may include:
- Pre-trial diversionary programs. In Philadelphia cases in which the complainant did not suffer serious injury, prosecutors often offer entry into pre-trial domestic violence diversionary programs which may result in the dismissal and expungement of charges if the defendant pays a fine, attends counseling sessions, completes community service, and stays out of trouble for six months.
- Credibility. Although the Commonwealth may prove strangulation without proving that the complainant suffered some kind of actual injury, the absence of injuries is still relevant in terms of whether the complainant is telling the truth. If the complainant alleges that the defendant choked him or her for a lengthy period of time but the complainant does not have any marks around the throat, then it may be possible to show that the complainant has fabricated the story. Additionally, cross examination may reveal that the complainant has a motive to fabricate for reasons such as jealousy, financial gain, or to obtain lawful immigration status. Every defendant in Pennsylvania has the right to a trial by jury or a trial with a judge, and the Commonwealth must prove each element of a statute beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge or jury do not believe the complainant, then that could lead to an acquittal despite the fact that the Commonwealth is not required to prove that an injury occurred.
- Self-Defense. Self-defense could also be a defense in an assault case. If the defense can show that the complainant attacked the defendant first, then the defendant may have been justified in fighting back. If the defense introduces some evidence of self-defense, the Commonwealth must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Commonwealth cannot do so, then the defendant would be acquitted.
Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Strangulation Charges
The Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Goldstein Mehta LLC have successfully represented hundreds of clients in domestic violence and domestic assault cases. We have already defended clients who are charged with strangulation and successfully moved to have these serious charges dismissed at preliminary hearings in courts throughout Pennsylvania. We are experienced and understanding defense attorneys who will fight for you. If you are facing domestic violence allegations or any other criminal charges, call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session.