Why I Voted Against Senate File 93 (the so called “strangulation” bill)

Today in the House Judiciary Committee we voted on  Senate File 93,  “An act enhancing the penalty for certain domestic abuse assault cases and providing a penalty,” better known as the strangulation bill. The bill passed, 16 ayes/2 nays — I was one of the nays.  I received several emails about this bill in the past few days asking me to support it, and I haven’t had a chance to respond to those people, so I am going to do so publicly, since I’m guessing there will be others wondering why I voted no.

First off, let me make it clear that I do not believe that it is appropriate or acceptable for anyone to strangle or smother anyone else, whether they qualify as domestic partners or not. But … we already have laws to punish acts of strangulation and/or smothering– laws that apply to everyone, not just domestic partners. For example: Jack and Diane, who have hated each other since high school, get into a big fight outside HyVee. Jack calls Diane a bad name, and Diane chokes Jack to death, or smothers him w/her plastic grocery bag, on purpose. Diane is going to be charged with 1st Degree Murder, which carries a penalty of life without parole, or possibly 2nd Degree Murder, a Class B felony carrying 50 years in prison. If Diane attempts to choke/smother Jack to death, but Jack manages to run away, Diane can be charged with Attempted Murder, a Class B felony also carrying 50 years in prison (even if Jack is completely uninjured). If Diane chokes/smothers Jack with the intent to injure him (i.e., she’s mad, but not mad enough to want to kill him) that’s an aggravated misdemeanor, even if Jack isn’t injured. And if Diane chokes/smothers Jack with the intent to seriously injure him, and she does seriously injure him, that’s a Class C felony (ten years in prison)–if the injury isn’t serious (e.g., she bruises him) then it’s a Class D felony (five years in prison).

And if Jack and Diane are domestic partners as defined by Iowa Code section 236.2(2),(a)-(d)  then in addition to the above penalties, Diane would also be required to complete the Batterer’s Education Program, and she would be disqualified from ever possessing a firearm, and there would be a no contact order immediately put into place enjoining her from having any contact with Jack (and/or their kids, probably, if they have kids) for at least a year and for up to five years. All of which is no doubt appropriate if Diane tries to choke/smother/hurt her significant other, because domestic abuse is a serious problem, and the law needs to take it seriously, and I believe that the current law does take it very seriously. Do some abusers get off too lightly? Absolutely. But that’s usually because someone (prosecutor/jury/judge/investigator) dropped the ball,  not because we don’t have enough crimes on the books.

And in fact, Senate File 93 doesn’t create a new crime at all. Instead, it takes behavior that is already a simple misdemeanor offense — knowingly impeding the normal breathing/circulation of another by applying pressure to the throat/neck, or by obstructing the nose or mouth of the other person, without causing injury — and bumps it up two levels to an aggravated misdemeanor. And if there’s an injury  (e.g., a scratch or a bruise) the penalty increases to a Class D felony.  So Senate File 93  takes a crime that already exists, and, if the victim is a domestic partner of the defendant, the penalty is more serious. A lot more serious. Prison serious. Which is a big deal, and which is way out of proportion, and, more importantly, which does not appear to actually make anyone safer, as far as I can tell.

If the goal is to get the abuser out of the home, away from the abused spouse, for an extended period of time, that already happens under current law — whether it’s a simple misdemeanor, or an aggravated, or a felony, the filing of any domestic abuse assault charge normally triggers the entry of a no contact order, that remains in place from one to five years (unless the victim requests that it be lifted, which is totally up to the judge). If the goal is to turn the abuser spouse into a felon, so he can’t get a job and thus can’t pay child support — well, this bill will accomplish that.

And here’s what I fear will happen if/when Senate File 93 becomes law: If Mr. and Mrs. Jack and Diane are arguing, and Jack puts his hand over Diane’s mouth for 5 seconds to shush her screaming so she can hear his screaming, Jack will be guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor. Under current law it’s only a simple misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to 30 days in jail, BEP completion, lifetime firearm disability, and a no contact order — this bill bumps the period of incarceration up to an indeterminate 2 year prison sentence. If Diane does the same thing to Jack, and while doing so accidentally scratches him with her ring, or if she elbows Jack in the throat to shut him up and while doing so bruises him, that’s a Class D felony. Under current law it’s a serious misdemeanor, carrying up to a year in jail, BEP completion, lifetime firearm disability, and a no contact order–this bill bumps the period of incarceration up to an indeterminate 5 years in prison. For something that would only merit a fine if it happened between non-domestic partners.

Should Jack be shutting Diane up by putting his hand over her mouth? No way. Should Diane be shutting Jack up by elbowing him in the throat? Absolutely not. But these actions simply do not rise to the level of strangulation, especially if it’s the first time it happened, and calling it a strangulation bill is inaccurate, and making people felons and threatening them with prison for these types of relatively minor assaults is just way out of proportion to the offense, especially if it doesn’t make anyone safer.

I am sure that the ultimate goal of SF 93 is not to create a bunch of new felons and lock a lot more people up in prison–I’ve been told that the official goal is to prevent women from being strangled to death by their abusive spouses, and I believe it  — however, if we create a law making it a felony if one domestic partner tries to shush the other during an argument by covering up his/her mouth and in the process of doing so accidentally scratches him/her — well then, Mr. Jack is going to be charged with a felony if he does that to Mrs. Diane, for sure. And don’t get me wrong, Mr. Jack should be charged with a crime, but a serious misdemeanor (a year in jail! no guns ever! BEP classes! a no contact order!) is the more appropriate level of charge, and that is exactly what Mr. Jack could be charged with and convicted of, under current law.

And as far as preventing future deaths by strangulation, that’s a very worthy goal, and I respect it — but bottom line, I simply don’t understand how this bill will do anything to accomplish that goal, or why women are going to be any safer if this law passes than they are right now. If someone could explain that to me in a way that makes sense, other than just saying “It will prevent deaths,” then I would vote for the bill right this second. Until then, I’m a no.

But here’s how I do think that Iowa could reduce the number of people who die due to  domestic violence, including deaths by strangulation — I propose that instead of creating a new felony that will require counties and the State to expend lots of money to prosecute and supervise and incarcerate people (in prison!) for relatively minor assaults, let’s turn all that money over to the many wonderful organizations around the state (like our own local YWCA) that provide emotional and financial assistance to people trapped in abusive relationships and help them escape those abusive relationships once and for all. These organizations save hundreds (probably thousands) of lives every year, and I bet if we gave then an extra million dollars or so, they could save hundreds more.  That’s a definite yes vote for me.

I think I’ll file an amendment.




About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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10 Responses to Why I Voted Against Senate File 93 (the so called “strangulation” bill)

  1. Nate McClintock says:

    I Voted for you because I believed that you Have Common Sense … Your Vote to day just reaffirms my belief … Great Job.

  2. karen wilson says:

    I am still not happy that taxpayers money paid for my disability and medication and brain injury treatment instead of my ex……. and you did not even bring it up , i mean brain injury or disability, with so many women being disabled and many diagnosed with mental illnesses, gosh do you thinnk a psychiatrist would do a cat scan or mri or even refer to a neuropsychologist, and yes since we are starting to train the shelters, we are watching clinton about non compliance on screening for TBI asking questions, as of yet, no referrals to Dr. Dereck Grimmell for follow up and no phone calls for questions to Brandy to the Brain injury association of Iowa, and no it is not just a scratch, message me, i can give you so much information, that will blow you away, and phone numbers etc, to Gael Strack, who did a video, book and has been on Oprah and Dr. mary car blanchard, and Dr.s from the CDC, and Dr. Jean langlois, and Maria Crowley from alabama, and check out Nebraska, they are way ahead of the game, do not doubt when the CDC gets done, the facts will be there small research studies are 30-70& of women in domestic violence are brain injured and suffer long term consequences, and strangulation is not even the question, it was called the beadting in my police report, very underestimated, and rapes also, they are strangeled there too, shaken and beaten, but there is never a m ention of that, compared to other states we are not up to par as far as can be, do you think it all about child support, when the man that did this to you gets joint custody, visitation, and i am expected to pay my own medical bills, I guess you know why i was on the governors council for brain injury, I am begging you to message me so i can give you phone numbers for you to get proper information from others in this field, i will not let you down, believe me your eyes will be wide open and you will see the light!!!! And Actually anger management is a no go in this county since dan fullerton does his own study, who does that, check out Iowa citys study or call TBI of america, and call Dereck Grimmell, from cornerstone Wellness, he can give you better info.

  3. karen wilson says:

    Oh by the way this was the first year i got to put my name on the tree down at the YWCA, I was always told only dead women could have their names there, m y TBI is too old for you to only think of dead women in strangulation, what about the ones who are disabled, i have a domestic vilence brain injury survivors groupp on facebook, we do survive, and why do we have to be dead, i told them at least i can get you money, not disrespecting the dead, those dead women cannot, and do you think i maybe might have been dead, their mom my children miss was lost forever, their old mom, now with memery loss, organization skills and disability with now tax payers are paying for, do you think they like that! tax payers paying for us!!!!! I am not dead ai am a survivor and fighting for this, and why oh why would they even think about giving a child to a man that did the dirty deed????? these laws do not help the disabled women that are seriously injured.

  4. karen wilson says:

    And I do have to apologize to you I am very passionate, much too passionate, this is too close to mey heart to keep shut up, I am sorry for my rant, one that i have to repeat over and over….and i will again in two weeks when we start doing those folders to hand out to shelters and we have done a Webcam, i can email it to you if you want, we got grant money from iowa dept of public health and tbi of iowa, or you can call binnie le hew or cadv and they can email it to you. thank you for listening to my rant, believe me there are angrier people out there, thank god for derek grimmell for the best neuropsychologist in town, besides Dr. Millard, who are getting no referrals for tbi screening and shy not, do you see a pattern here, of undiagnosed women who are diagnosed with mental illnesses or who are never even aware they have one at all, I was one of the lucky ones, 4 years later i was diagnosed!

  5. karen wilson says:

    By the way it was the first beating for me and each blow is a new brain injury pushing the jello from one side to the other, and believe me there is not such thing as strangulation without a beating, huh?????

  6. Nate McClintock says:

    Karen … I read your story … I am so very sorry that such a terrible event happened to you … You were the Victim of a violent act from someone you once loved … It was hard for me to read such a story … But I would like to Encourage you to keep telling your story to whom ever will listen, write to whom ever will read it. By telling this story we your friends and neighbors will at least have a better understanding of what you and others like you are going through.

    Karen … I’m an Ex-Marine, I have experienced Violence, but that was to be expected …

    Yours Was Not … You are in my Prayers ….


    • karen wilson says:

      Thanks Nate, did you go to MT st. clare, i was karen Phillips, i had my tbi at age 21, wow, but thank you for your prayers

  7. wolfelaw says:

    Karen — I really appreciate the fact that you take the time to read my blog entries and respond, and I really enjoy reading your responses. Having been through such a horrible domestic abuse situation yourself, you have every right to be passionate about the subject, and you shouldn’t apologize. Thanks for being willing to share your experiences w/others!
    PS — Dr. Grimmell is great, isn’t he?

    • karen wilson says:

      Yes he is awesome, but too bad the mental health centers do not refer their head patients to him and he tells me,and Brandy from TBI of Iowa tells me no phone calls from professionals to ask questions, and they have toll free numbers, my TBI is thirty years old and I have wanted proper medical care and education for patients and professionals, I can hear your frustrations, I guess i am saying I am sorry for all the posts, that i put, but it has always been a touchy subject for me, and you should see me at the county domestic violence coalition meetings, I am getting better emotionally, Dr. Grimmell has helped me with that and my new husband and I figured out this morning my meds cost 4000.00 a month, lol, TBI is a never ending life time sentence, for my family which have isolated me and cannot deal with my behaviours and my children who grew up with a disabled mother who do not understand, and with many professionals who do not understand, Adam Stark told me our next call in is March28th at 12-1pm, TBI 101, of course i think i want to be way ahead of the game, so my tangents and passion is sometimes getting me down, last night i took a migraine pill and could not sleep, and of course with PTSD brought up a lot of issues with me, I am truly sorry for all those posts, but i though i should tell you part of my story, it is a great one, but again thank you for putting up with me,my husband laughed again, and said he did not want to read this, he said he knows who i am, and so the professionals sometimes think I am a hoot, i am asking why, I kinda liked me before, also,lol

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