Montana’s New Felony Strangulation Law Proves to be Effective

Today, the Montana Department of Justice announced the results of a survey which indicated at least 197 alleged offenders have been charged with felony strangulation since May 19, 2017.

During the last legislative session, SB 153 was drafted by the Montana Department of Justice in concert with the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office and carried by Senator Margie MacDonald-D, Billings. The bill established that it’s a felony offense of strangulation if a person “purposefully or knowingly impedes the normal breathing or circulation of the blood of a partner or family member by applying pressure on the throat or neck of the partner or family member, or blocks air flow to the nose and mouth of the partner or family member.”

Montana’s old law did not distinguish strangulation from other crimes of assault. To convict a person of felony assault by strangulation, prosecutors had to prove a victim suffered a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.  This was often very difficult to prove, as injuries are often internal, and not always immediately apparent.

“SB 153 gave Montana’s law enforcement and prosecutors the tool they needed to address serial domestic violence in our state,” Attorney General Tim Fox said.  “Non-lethal instances of strangulation are a particularly dangerous form of abuse, and a red flag for identifying future lethal violence in abusive relationships.  The new law has and will save lives by dealing with offenders who engage in this abusive behavior,” Attorney General Fox added.

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office reported prosecuting 69 cases of felony strangulation since the new law was enacted.  “Previously, Montana was one of a small minority of states across the country lacking a specific strangulation law,” said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. “There was a gap in our aggravated assault law which didn’t provide domestic abuse victims the protection they needed.”

Bill sponsor Senator Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said, “Lives will be saved due these arrests.  There is a high correlation between strangulation attempts and subsequent homicides.  In the past, abusers were simply returned to their homes and relationships without being held accountable for these dangerous, violent assaults, and too often, we would see the victim again in the emergency room or the morgue.”

In 2016, the Attorney General’s Office held a series of crime victim forums across the state to give victims an opportunity to speak about their experiences with the justice system, as well as their thoughts on how victims might be better served in the future.  After hearing disturbing testimony from two victims in Missoula who were strangled by the same man, Attorney General Fox made it a priority to work with county attorneys and legislators to make strangulation a felony offense in Montana.