Pennsylvania lawmakers seek to make strangulation a felony offense

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are seeking to change the classification of strangulation from a misdemeanor to a felony offense.

Strangulation, which occurs when the circulation of blood to a part of the body is cut off by constriction, remains one of the most common forms of domestic abuse.

In Pennsylvania alone, “every three days a woman or child is killed as a result of domestic violence,” according to the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

A report compiled by the U.S. Justice Department said strangulation “is more common than professionals have realized.” Recent studies have now shown that 34 percent of abused pregnant women and 47 percent of female domestic violence victims reported being “choked.” Additionally, the report contends, most experts say they believe the rate is higher “given the minimization by victims and the lack of education.”

State Reps. Scott Conklin and Becky Corbin have referred House Bill 1581 to the House Judiciary Committee and are eager to get it passed.

The bill seeks to amend Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, providing for the offense of strangulation.

If HB 1581 is passed, individuals accused of strangulation who are under active protection of abuse orders at the time they commit strangulation can be subject to a first-degree felony charge.

Additionally, if a person uses an “instrument of crime,” such as a gun or knife, he or she can also be charged with a first-degree felony.

The bill was referred to the judiciary committee for review on Oct. 1 and was committed on Nov. 10. It has made its way through the first of three considerations and was removed from the table on Nov. 12 for revision.

“We are attempting to come up with a framework everyone agrees with,” Conklin, D-Rush Township, said.

“Legal scholars are inspecting where the burden of proof is, as it creates a felony offense for putting your hands on someone else,” he said. “The bill seeks to deter individuals from domestic violence. When you look at domestic violence cases, one of the stigmas is the embarrassment of it and the reciprocal effect that it has on all members of the family. We are trying to keep this from happening, protect victims and keep everyone’s rights protected.”

Conklin said he has been affected by domestic violence in his own life.

“Four people I grew up with have been victims of domestic violence,” he said. “We want to stop this trend of domestic violence. This isn’t right.”

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller agreed.

“If the bill is passed, it would be outstanding,” she said.

“Right now in Pa. we have two assault charges: simple assault and aggravated assault,” Parks Miller said. “Domestic violence can be difficult to prove. If victims don’t suffer one of the two injuries, it’s difficult to charge as a felony.

“If we put a witness on the stand and they say their perpetrator had their fingers around their neck for only a few seconds, but they are able to regain consciousness, we have trouble trying to prosecute for strangulation,” she said. “This bill, if passed into law, would allow to charge for that action, classifying this dangerous behavior as a felony.”

Revisions are underway to change the language of the bill. Lawmakers want to ensure that cases that would arise from the new legislation don’t turn into “he said, she said” cases, Conklin said.

Parks Miller said she is not worried about a surge in “he said, she said” cases, however, as “there is usually evidence leading up to these events.”

She also said there are plenty of tools district attorneys can use to validate a victim’s account. For example, she said, “there are infrared cameras that can pick up broken blood vessels to corroborate these stories if there isn’t any physical proof at the surface.”

“As district attorneys, we only intend on bringing forth credible cases,” Parks Miller said.

The bill will enter two more considerations before being submitted for a final vote.

In Centre County, two domestic violence related homicides have occurred in the past three months.

Vladimir Podnebennyy, 63, is suspected of killing his wife, Natalya Podnebennaya, 58, in her car outside their College Township home on Oct. 26. He has been bound over on several charges, including first- and third-degree murder.

In the other case, Alois Kudlach, 49, is charged with first- and third-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, 51-year-old Nuria Kudlach.

“This bill will have the power to penalize lost consciousness and the danger of death, strangulation presents,” Parks Miller said.

At least 35 states have criminalized strangulation. According to the memo Corbin, R-Chester, submitted before the General Assembly along with HB 1581, “10 percent of violent deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to strangulation” and “most victims are women.”

“People need to recognize that pressing two to three seconds, the right way, could kill someone,” Parks Miller said. “Other states have been doing this for a long time. We need to catch up. Strangulation is a very dangerous act.”

Jalelah Ahmed: 814-231-4631, @jalelahahmed