The Oregon Legislature has given prosecutors new tools to file felony charges in cases of strangulation, which under previous law often netted offenders only low-level misdemeanor charges.
Strangulation is defined as impeding normal breathing or blood circulation by applying pressure to a victim's throat or neck, or by blocking the nose or mouth.
The Oregon House and Senate voted unanimously to expand the criteria for felony-level strangulation during a short legislative session that ended Saturday.
Strangulation can now be prosecuted as a felony if the victim is a family or household member, or if the crime occurs in the context of domestic violence. Applying pressure to the chest that impedes breathing also now qualifies as strangulation.
Previously, strangulation could be elevated to a felony only if other conditions were met — such as the victim was younger than 10, the victim was pregnant, the crime was committed in the presence of a child or the offender had at least three prior convictions for strangulation, assault or menacing.
That meant a perpetrator without violent crime convictions would face only a misdemeanor charge if he or she strangled an adult while the two were alone — a common scenario.
"Strangulation is really a crime of power," said Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz. "In a domestic violence situation, if someone is willing to strangle another person, that is a big show of force."
From Jan. 1, 2017, through Dec. 31, 2017, the District Attorney's Office had 111 misdemeanor strangulation cases and 34 felony strangulation cases, Markiewicz said.
Some offenders were charged with both felony and misdemeanor strangulation, he noted.
Markiewicz said a large number of the misdemeanor cases from 2017 would have qualified as felony cases under Oregon's new law. The District Attorney's Office is likely to start filing more felony strangulation cases.
"I would absolutely expect an increase in felony charges," he said.
Misdemeanor strangulation can be punished by up to 364 days in jail and a maximum fine of $6,250. Felony strangulation carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $125,000, according to the Oregon Senate Majority Office.
The change to Oregon's law is part of a nationwide trend to reclassify strangulation as a more serious crime.
"Loss of consciousness can occur in five to 10 seconds and death can occur within minutes," said Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Lucy Durst, who handles part of the domestic violence caseload. "It is a really serious act that can have serious consequences. There can be delayed fatalities days or weeks after the attack."
Death in the aftermath of an attack can come from tears and ruptures in the carotid artery that carries oxygenated blood to the brain. Blood clots can travel to the brain and victims can suffer respiratory complications such as pneumonia, according to the San Diego-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
Other impacts can include memory problems and early dementia, involuntary urination or defecation, vomiting, an inability to speak, and burst blood vessels in the eyes, ears, mouth, neck and on the face, according to the institute. Victims can also suffer psychological damage.
"Many times, victims will say, 'I thought I was going to die that day,' " said Durst, who received training from the institute.
Strangulation is also a warning sign of a possible future homicide. Victims who have been strangled are more than seven times as likely to be murdered, according to the institute.
Durst said news that a strangulation could be prosecuted only as a misdemeanor came as a surprise to victims in past cases.
"When you feel your life might be ending, to come in afterward and find out it's only a misdemeanor, I imagine that could be difficult," Durst said.
Prosecutors from around the state who testified in favor of strengthening Oregon's laws said the old criteria sent a message to victims and perpetrators that strangulation wouldn't be taken seriously in many cases.
Court records show Oregon's old criteria for felony and misdemeanor strangulation charges have created convoluted court cases that can appear dismissive of the harm caused to victims themselves.
Joseph Francisco Teran, 37, faces charges of felony-level strangulation, misdemeanor-level strangulation, two counts of fourth-degree assault and harassment in Jackson County Circuit Court.
On Dec. 31, 2017, Teran allegedly grabbed a 15-year-old female relative by the hair and pulled her to the floor. He allegedly covered her mouth with his hand and pinched her nose closed for approximately 30 to 40 seconds. She was thrashing and struggling, but could not break free, a probable cause affidavit alleged.
The incident left her with a burst blood vessel in her eye, the affidavit alleged.
Teran was charged with misdemeanor strangulation, and because a 5-year-old girl was present, he was also charged with felony strangulation, an indictment shows.
Teran has a pre-trial conference scheduled April 9, court records show.
In another case, Jacob Leroy Faubion, 29, faces charges for felony-level strangulation, misdemeanor-level strangulation and two counts of fourth-degree assault in Jackson County Circuit Court.
On Jan. 31, he allegedly kicked a woman during a domestic violence attack, grabbed her by the throat and prevented her from breathing for an unknown amount of time, according to a probable cause affidavit.
"During the altercation the subject told the victim he was going to kill her," the affidavit alleged.
Faubion was charged with misdemeanor strangulation for the alleged strangulation itself, plus felony strangulation for having been convicted of at least three violent crimes in the past, according to an indictment.
He has convictions for fourth-degree assault and resisting arrest in 2009, fourth-degree assault in 2012 and fourth-degree assault and tampering with a witness in 2013, Josephine County Circuit Court records show.
Faubion entered not guilty pleas to the new charges Wednesday and has a pre-trial conference scheduled in Jackson County Circuit Court April 16, court records show.
Michale Lionel Mason, 54, faces charges of misdemeanor strangulation, fourth-degree assault, harassment and methamphetamine possession for allegedly strangling a woman Feb. 4 during a domestic dispute, according to court documents and a probable cause affidavit.
The woman had marks from his fingers on her neck, the affidavit alleged.
Mason has no prior record of violent crime in Oregon. The drug possession charge is the only felony among the charges against him, according to an indictment.
Mason pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday and has an April 16 pre-trial conference scheduled in Jackson County Circuit Court, according to court records.
Going forward, Durst said, the expanded criteria for felony-level strangulation will make it easier to prosecute cases at an appropriate level.
"The legislative changes are good. It mirrors the seriousness of strangulation," she said.
For more information on the risks, symptoms and impacts of strangulation, see www.strangulationtraininginstitute.com.
— Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.