“Too Rich” Defense? Teen Blames “Affluenza” for Drunk Driving

Ethan Couch uses affluenza defense to excuse drunk drivingLast week a Texas judge handed down what many see as a light sentence to a teen who was behind the wheel in a deadly drunk driving crash. The boy’s defense: He is too rich to know right from wrong.

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch was driving nearly twice the speed limit with a BAC three times the legal limit for adults when he plowed his truck into a group of people standing by the side of the road. The crash killed four and injured several of Couch’s passengers, including a teen who is paralyzed as a result of his injuries.

At his trial, Couch’s attorney brought in a psychologist who argued that the teen’s upbringing in a wealthy household often left him unsupervised and undisciplined, giving him a sense of entitlement and cushioning him from the consequences of his choices. Calling it a case of “affluenza,” the defense claimed that Couch shouldn’t be jailed because the lack of appropriate parenting made him unable to anticipate the harm his actions could cause.  Ultimately, Couch was sentenced in juvenile court to 10 years of probation instead of the 20 years in prison he was facing.

Understandably, many are outraged at the sentence, and not just because the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the terrible crime. Psychologists across the country have denounced the defense’s presentation of “affluenza” as a mental health issue. A piece in Time Magazine notes the “condition” is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and there is no empirical, peer-reviewed research on it as a psychiatric disorder.

Some have also expressed a concern that the sentence suggests that the wealthy are given special treatment by the justice system. As part of his sentence, Couch will spend a year in a rehabilitation program that reportedly costs nearly half a million dollars, with his parents footing the bill. Opponents argue that this stipulation would be unavailable to defendants without Couch’s resources. And if Couch truly believes that his family’s money makes him immune from serious consequences, does a probation sentence merely reinforce that belief?

The question becomes, did the judge actually buy Couch’s “affluenza” defense or were there other factors behind the sentence? Some reports state that Couch’s age might have made the judge more inclined toward rehabilitation and probation, regardless of his defense. Others have suggested that the 10 years of probation will actually put Couch under supervision longer than a prison sentence would have, as he could have been released after just 2 years.

What do you think of the judge’s decision to impose probation instead of prison for this teen drunk driver? Should someone’s upbringing—positive or negative—influence their punishment?

2 Responses to ““Too Rich” Defense? Teen Blames “Affluenza” for Drunk Driving”

  1. I hope the victims’ families takes that “psychologist” to the licensing board for malpractice after they sue the crap out of him. “Procedural fairness” does reuqire the judge to look at mitigating and aggravating circumstances while honoring precedent and statutory language. We need to remember that our justice system is a human invention and that no sentence can restore the dead or paralized. Peace to the victims and their families.

  2. Alison Betts

    It will be interesting to see what happens, Doug. Lawsuits against the boy’s family have been filed, and this story continues to evolve. Prosecutors in the case are looking for ways to have the boy spend time in a detention facility and the TX Lt. Governor is asking a state Senate committee to study sentences for intoxication manslaughter as a result of this case: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/12/19/texas-official-calls-for-tougher-sentences-after-wreck/