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Strangulation bill advances in Senate

LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH COMMISSION

News release

FRANKFORT — A Danville woman, who survived an assault when she was a 30-year-old graduate student in Texas, testified today in support of a measure to make strangulation its own felony crime under Kentucky’s criminal code.

“Seventy-two hours out from my attack my throat swelled so much I could barely breathe,” Nancy Ross-Stallings said while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the assault. “I had to sit up to sleep. I lost my voice for a number of weeks from this. I have a permanent numb spot on the left side of my throat.”

She said if the measure, known as Senate Bill 70, would become law, Kentucky would join 47 other states with similar laws. New Mexico was the most recent state to pass such a measure. The only other states without it are Ohio and South Carolina.

Ross-Stallings stressed that she wasn’t talking about choking.

“Many domestic violence victims say they have been choked,” she said. “What they actually mean is that they have been strangled. Choking is something that occurs when you have food, or another object, caught in your trachea.”

Sponsor Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, said SB 70 would also allow for the offense of strangulation as one of the acts considered domestic violence and abuse – a designation that can increase prison time for perpetrators.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said it was such a problem that her county formed a task force to study it.

“I know many of you are thinking … don’t we already have laws on the books that could cover this? The simple answer is no, we don’t,” Corn said, adding that perpetrators are sometimes charged with misdemeanors. “None of us would equate a slap on the face to having someone’s hand around another person’s neck. The risk of harm is so great when you talk about strangling another person. It is potentially lethal and should not be treated as a misdemeanor.”

She said it’s hard as a prosecutor to get felony assault charges to stick in nonlethal strangulation cases.

“The bottom line is just this: It is currently too difficult to prosecute these cases under Kentucky law as the law currently exists,” Corn said. “A stand-alone statute does not create a new crime. All it does is set clear elements for prosecutors to be able to prosecute something that is already occurring throughout the commonwealth.”

Kentucky Public Advocate Damon Preston spoke in opposition to SB 70. He said if a new law is needed the change should be part of an overall, comprehensive criminal justice reform package. Preston said legislators needed to stop creating new felonies at the same time they are trying to reduce prison populations in an overcrowded correctional system.

Rebecca DiLoreto of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also spoke in opposition. She said SB 70 was so broadly written that it could be applied to situations other than domestic violence.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, who co-sponsored SB 70, said the legislation focuses on a major issue that needs addressing.

“This law is needed,” he said. “We are behind as a state. It is a bill which Kentucky can be proud of.”

The committee ultimately approved SB 70. It now advances to the full Senate for consideration.