By Blair Grinn, First Response / Court Advocate, HAVEN
It’s true. All of us working in advocacy land are genuinely thrilled about this new law that went into effect April 1, 2013. Of course it seems odd to be so excited about something so cryptic, but hear me out. This is a giant victory for batterer accountability and enhanced protection for survivors of abuse. For the past seven years, folks have lobbied tirelessly to strengthen laws to prosecute assailants who use lethal force like strangulation. Previously, strangling someone to the point of unconsciousness was categorized as a simple misdemeanor domestic assault and battery. The maximum punishment for a charge like that is up to 93 days in jail, but most likely an assailant would receive some form of probation. Sometimes he may even get the chance to have the case disappear from public record after a successful completion of probation. Suffice it to say, this was not the kind of accountability/justice/safety most victims were looking for.
The new law makes strangulation or suffocation a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Strangling is defined as “intentionally impeding normal breathing or circulation of the blood by applying pressure on the throat or neck or by blocking the nose or mouth of another person.” Strangling is commonly mixed up with choking. They are not the same thing. If an abuser had forcefully shoved grapes down into a woman’s trachea to cut off her air passages, then yes, he choked her. Deliberately grabbing a woman’s neck and squeezing until she blacks out, is quite another situation. I cannot emphasize enough the level of danger and lethality that coincide with strangulation. It is literally a matter of seconds that can mean the difference between irreparable brain damage and death. Even a small amount of force applied in just the right area can be fatal. Loss of consciousness can happen in seven to thirteen seconds, the body can entirely expire in four minutes. That is not a lot of time by any stretch.
As an advocate, a major red flag always goes up for me when a client discloses that she was strangled. It is a big deal. Period. We have a well-documented list of proven “lethality indicators” that show how dangerous an abuser is becoming based on his current behaviors. Strangulation tops the list followed by biting, making threats to kill, sexual assault and having access to weapons, just to name a few. When I mention how serious this act is to clients, none are surprised. They know how close they came to death. Many have said verbatim, “I honestly thought he was going to kill me. I saw my life flash before my eyes.” That is not to be taken lightly. Thankfully these particular clients were able to survive their attacks, many women do not. Strangulation accounts for 10% of all violent deaths annually in the U.S. Women are six times more likely to be strangled than men. This is absolutely gendered violence. Feel free to click here for more facts on strangulation.
So far two cities in Oakland County have already charged the new strangulation felony. Not bad for a 39 day old law. I applaud our partners in law enforcement as well as the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office for taking these crimes as seriously as we do; and for being the first in the state of Michigan to lead the way. I encourage them to continue in their commitment to a coordinated community response to end domestic violence. Everyone is affected by these dangerous crimes. Please spread the word.