BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Strangulation, common in domestic abuse cases, is now a crime in New York and already 2,000 people have been arrested under the weeks-old law, authorities said on Thursday.
Police and prosecutors, who in the past had difficulty prosecuting such cases because of the lack of visible physical injuries, said the law clearly was needed.
The 2,000 arrests on choking charges in the first 15 weeks since the law took effect are "absolutely unprecedented and staggering," said Sean Byrne, acting commissioner for the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services.
In the past, in cases lacking physical evidence as obvious as a bruise, authorities were forced to lower charges against the perpetrator to a non-criminal count of harassment.
Now, the new law allows a criminal count of obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, which can be proven with other courtroom tools, including witness testimony, Byrne said.
Similar laws have been passed in California, and discussed in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and elsewhere in the nation.
"Strangulation is a tactic of power and control that is very common in domestic violence scenarios," said Amy Barasch, executive director of the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
Victims sometimes lose consciousness, which can lead to brain damage, she said.
Authorities say the new law recognizes the seriousness of the offense, and has teeth sharp enough to keep a convicted offender behind bars or under scrutiny for life. Under the new strangulation law, anyone convicted of either felony or misdemeanor counts must submit a DNA sample to authorities -- not usually required in misdemeanor cases.
"Domestic abusers aren't usually first-time offenders and we're expecting to see that as people get convicted of these offenses it will lead to solving other crimes," Byrne said.
According to arrests statistics from November 11, 2010 to February 22, 2011, there were 2,000 people arrested under the new law, about 60 percent of them in New York City.
Of those charged, 94 percent were males, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s, according to the report.
Barasch offered a bleak picture of domestic abuse and the role strangulation too often plays. She said research indicates women in abusive relationships who are at some point strangled by their abuser are 10 times more likely to be killed at some point.
Byrne said 44 percent of all women killed in the state in 2009 (the most recent data) were killed as the result of domestic violence, and such abuse is "the single largest subcategory of aggravated assault in New York."
About 10 percent of violent deaths in the United States each year are due to strangulation, with six female victims to every male, according to data from the New York Prosecutors Training Institute. Advocates against domestic violence, including Barasch, often say only about half of such incidents are ever reported to police.
Editing by Jerry Norton