By: Heather Mongilio

A bill in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly would make intentional suffocation and strangulation a first-degree assault.

The bill submitted in the House of Delegates was introduced by Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) and co-sponsored by every delegate from Frederick County. The Senate version is co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick).

Maryland is one of three states that have not specified strangulation as a first-degree assault or its own assault statute, said Joyce King, chief of staff in the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office. Strangulation is a common form of control in intimate partner violence and can have fatal consequences.

A person is 750 times more likely to kill their partner (not necessarily by strangulation) if they have strangled their partner before, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.

Current Maryland law defines a first-degree assault as one that causes serious physical injury. While strangulation can cause serious injury — it takes less than three minutes to die by strangulation — it can be reduced to second-degree assault, said Brett Engler, an assistant state’s attorney who handles domestic violence cases in Frederick County.

Second-degree assault is a misdemeanor, which means the case can be expunged after 10 years, 15 years if it is marked as a domestic violence case, Engler said. A second-degree assault also carries a 10-year-maximum prison sentence, 15 years less than that for first-degree assault.

There has been past reluctance from legislators, King said, including concerns that the bill would include rough sex or bar fights. Including the word intentional eliminates suffocation or strangulation that might occur in a bar fight or during rough sex, King said.

Strangulation is not defined in the language being proposed, which is purposeful, King said. It matches the language included in the first-degree rape statute.

In general, strangulation is defined as blocking the arteries and airways through force, Engler said. It is not limited to putting a hand against someone’s throat.

Part of the pushback comes from legislators who argue that the first-degree assault statute already covers strangulation, Engler said. But from a prosecutor’s perspective, it is a necessary addition to first-degree assault, she said. Right now, cases where someone describes blacking out or loss of bladder control are charged as first-degree assault because those are considered near fatal.

“When you’re coming in front of a jury, nine times out of 10 you may not get that first-degree assault because it’s so difficult for a jury to understand,” Engler said.

Prosecutors rely on expert witnesses to explain to juries the severity of strangulation, she said. Adding strangulation to the first-degree assault statute would not remove that need, as the expert witnesses would still have to demonstrate that strangulation occurred.

Demonstrating lethality can be difficult, said Pamela Holtzinger, forensic nurse services program coordinator at Frederick Health Hospital. Holtzinger testifies in intimate partner violence cases.

“In our experience, the courts and juries have difficulty understanding the lethality and medical risks associated with the act of nonfatal strangulation,” she said in an email. “For too many of our patients, this is a near death experience (often without visible signs of injury). This type of law would serve to recognize that.”

Strangulation does not always leave bruising. That happens in about half of cases, The News-Post previously reported. It can be lethal days later if strangulation caused the artery to be torn or other lasting effects.

The bills will have hearings in their respective chambers at the end of the month. Although it is early, sponsors and advocates are hopeful the bill will pass.

The bill is “almost a no-brainer,” Young said.

“It’s something that’s been overlooked, and it’s pretty serious. … I mean, strangulation can kill you. And it’s not my bill, but it’s one I empathize with,” he said.

The bills have bipartisan sponsorship, which could be a sign that it will pass, said Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), who co-sponsored the bill. She decided to sign on after hearing that strangulation disproportionately affects women. She said she was surprised it was not already law.

“This just seemed to be common sense,” she said.

Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick and Carroll) also signed on. His office looks at ways to strengthen the criminal code, he said. But like Lewis Young, he said there are surprising omissions.

“And so as we’re going through the code, and we find certain horrific things that happened … in a case where you have a attempted strangulation or a suffocation, an intentional assault, and yet it’s not even considered a felony, so someone could just simply walk. That’s not appropriate,” Cox said. “I think we can find bipartisan support to make sure that the prison sentence and the crime is increased in those situations, because that’s truly a crime of violence.”

The only member of the Frederick County delegation to not sponsor the bill is Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll). He said he did not see the bill and needed to review it.

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