Learn about Virginia’s Strangulation Code (Section 18.2-51.6)

Due to an ongoing and increased concern about domestic violence, the Virginia General Assembly passed Virginia Code Section 18.2-51.6, which prohibits strangulation.  Specifically, that Section states:

Any person who, without consent, impedes the blood circulation or respiration of another person by knowingly, intentionally, and unlawfully applying pressure to the neck of such person resulting in the wounding or bodily injury of such person is guilty of strangulation, a Class 6 felony.

Often times, an individual charged with a domestic assault will also be charged with strangulation if there’s an allegation that the accused chocked the complainant. Because the statute is relatively new, there’s not a significant body of law that has been developed that further defines this section. 

However, when reviewing the statute, one case that must be understood well is Ricks v. Commonwealth, 290 Va. 470 (2015). 

The facts

This case is actually a combination of two separate cases that were considered by the Virginia Supreme Court at once. 

Defendant Ricks: In the Ricks case, the accused was alleged to have choked the complainant multiple times. Specifically, he had “one hand over her neck, cutting off her breathing completely.” The complainant further explained that she lost her voice for several days and had bruising her neck. She did not seek medical attention nor suffer permanent injuries. To be clear, the defendant denied choking the complainant, but the court found her testimony to be “very credible.”

Defendant Chilton: This was the second case considered in which the complainant alleged  that the defendant “may have grabbed me around by throat briefly.” While the complainant stated that “I saw black,” on cross-examination, she conceded that she couldn’t recall the defendant actually putting his hands around her neck. 

The Court’s Analysis.

In both cases, the Supreme Court of Virginia considered what “bodily injury” in the statute:

“Bodily” is defined as “of or relating to the body.” Webster's Third New International Dictionary 245 (1993). “Injury” is defined as “an act that damages, harms, or hurts.” Id. at 1164. In interpreting the phrase “bodily injury” in the context of malicious wounding, Virginia courts have long applied the interpretation that “ ‘[b]odily injury comprehends, it would seem, any bodily hurt whatsoever.’ ” Bryant v. Commonwealth, 189 Va. 310, 316, 53 S.E.2d 54, 57 (1949) (citation omitted) (defining “bodily injury” in the context of maiming under former Code § 4402, now malicious wounding under Code § 18.2–51).1

We find persuasive authority both from the Court of Appeals and other jurisdictions. The Court of Appeals has given “the phrase ‘bodily injury’ its ‘everyday, ordinary meaning,’ which needs no technical, anatomical definition.” English, 58 Va.App. at 718, 715 S.E.2d at 395 (quoting Luck, 32 Va.App. at 832, 531 S.E.2d at 43). “To prove a bodily injury, the victim need not experience any observable wounds, cuts, or breaking of the skin. Nor must she offer proof of ‘broken bones or bruises.’ ” Id. at 719, 715 S.E.2d at 395 (quoting Luck, 32 Va.App. at 831–32, 531 S.E.2d at 43). “[I]nternal injuries—no less than external injuries—fall within the scope of Code § 18.2–51.” Id.

The United States Code defines “bodily injury” as “a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn, or disfigurement; physical pain; illness; impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty; or any other injury to the body, no matter how temporary.” 18 U.S.C. § 1515(a)(5)(A–E). Other states have broadly defined “bodily injury.” Neb.Rev.Stat. § 28–109 (2015) (“physical pain, illness, or any impairment of physical condition”); Tenn.Code Ann. § 39–11–106(a)(2) (“a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn or disfigurement, and physical pain or temporary illness or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty”); Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6–1–104(a)(i) (“ ‘Bodily injury’ means: (A) A cut, abrasion, burn or temporary disfigurement; (B) Physical pain; or (C) Impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty.”).

Finding the foregoing authorities persuasive, and in light of our broad definition of bodily injury when applying Code § 18.2–51, today we hold that “bodily injury” within the scope of Code § 18.2–51.6 is any bodily injury whatsoever and includes an act of damage or harm or hurt that relates to the body; is an impairment of a function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty; or is an act of impairment of a physical condition.

The Court’s Findings

Based upon this analysis, the Supreme Court upheld Ricks’ conviction. Because “bodily injury” doesn’t require permanent injury or cuts and bleeding, the Supreme Court found that it had to give deference to the trial court’s finding that the complainant was “very credible”

With respect to the Chilton appeal, the Supreme Court found there wasn’t enough for a conviction. Specifically because the complainant never “testified that Chilton actually applied pressure to her neck.” The Supreme Court also found that “seeing black” is not bodily injury as the complainant never totally lost consciousness.    

Point to take away from Virginia’s Strangulation Statute and the Ricks/Chilton Case

1. Strangulation doesn’t require significant injury. The Virginia Supreme Court set a relatively broad definition of bodily injury. Just because there wasn’t permanent injury, blood, broken bones, etc. that doesn’t mean it doesn’t violate this Code Section.

2. Statements Matter.  In Ricks, the defendant outright denied chocking the complainant. However, the trial court still convicted him. Simply because criminal law requires the Government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt doesn’t mean a “he said-she said” case means an acquittal is a foregone conclusion. Credibility and circumstances will still play a huge role in the case. 

3. Confessions Matter.  While not considered in the Ricks case, statements made to the police will be used against an accused. And often times those statements cannot be undone. In many cases, particularly this type of charge, statements to the police could indeed make or break the case.

Conclusion

If  you have any additional questions about this statute feel free to give BenGlassLaw a call at (703)584-7277

James S. Abrenio
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Focusing on criminal, traffic defense and personal injury cases