If Gov. Susana Martinez signs a Senate bill into law, New Mexico will become the 46th state to specifically define strangulation as a serious violent crime.
State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored Senate Bill 61, called the Legislature’s unanimous support of the measure “a monumental achievement.”
A former prosecutor, Ivey-Soto said he became aware of what he called the “insidiousness” of strangulation. It’s a powerful type of violence that signals to a victim “I have your very life in my hands,” he said.
He credited the success of SB 61 to an aggressive, yearslong effort by victims advocates to educate lawmakers, attorneys, law enforcement officers and medical professionals about the prevalence of this potentially deadly act, which affects thousands of people in the state — sometimes with lifelong symptoms of brain trauma.
So far, however, the crime has been nearly impossible to prosecute. To the untrained eye, the signs are difficult to detect.
Late Wednesday, the bill passed its last hurdle in the Legislature, the House of Representatives, on a vote of 65-0.
A spokesman for Martinez did not respond to a request for comment on whether she backs the bill, but the governor has long pushed a tough-on-crime agenda.
“I’m confident she’s going to sign it,” said Sheila Lewis, director of the violence-prevention initiative Santa Fe Safe.
Lewis is one of several advocates who have worked for years to raise awareness about the dangers of strangulation and suffocation and have pushed for policy changes to ensure victims receive appropriate medical care and offenders are held accountable.
Combined with another measure that passed through the Legislature — a House bill calling for more law enforcement training on strangulation — Lewis and Ivey-Soto said they believe the crime bill will give police and prosecutors the tools they need to effectively prosecute strangulation as a felony charge of aggravated battery.
House Bill 40, sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, an Albuquerque Republican, requires that basic law enforcement training and officer in-service training include information about strangulation and suffocation. Officers would learn what questions to ask and what signs to look for — a foggy memory, for instance, redness in the eyes and facial swelling — and how to document such evidence correctly.
Lisa Weisenfeld, a policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said a third measure that passed through the Legislature also will aid victims by improving a state program that helps keep their home address and other contact information secret from their abusers by issuing an alternate forwarding address.
The current program, administered through the Secretary of State’s Office, is poorly defined, Weisenfeld said. House Bill 119, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences and Ivey-Soto, will bolster the program by laying out guidelines and procedures.
Weisenfeld sees it as an opportunity to expand the program, which now serves about 200 people, and to create more of an outreach initiative, connecting domestic violence victims with support services.
Eventually, she said, she hopes policies through the program will allow people to register to vote or obtain a driver’s license using the alternate post office box as an address.
Ivey-Soto said he’s “absolutely ecstatic” to see the measures get through the Legislature this time around.
“It’s incremental,” he said, “but we’re in the right direction.”