Decisions Judge Decides Boy is Too Rich for Jail After DUI Manslaughter

  1. A teenage boy, whose drunk driving killed four people and seriously injured two others, was spared any jail time as a result of his being a “victim” of his family’s excessive wealth. In a DUI case that has sparked national outrage, a Texas judge sentenced the 16 year old defendant suffering from “affluenza”, with 10 years of probation and treatment in a luxurious California rehabilitation facility.

    Drunk Driver Kills Four People, Injures Two Others


    Official investigative reports stated that on that fateful night, Ethan Couch drove a pickup truck used by his parents and owned by the family business. His friends warned him that he was too drunk to drive. He had a 0.24 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in his body, over three times the legal limit for adults, including the drugs THC and valium in his system. And as Ethan Couch approached speeds reaching 70 mph, he was told to slow down by passengers. Couch lost control of the vehicle, swerved to the opposite side of the road, and fatally struck a stranded motorist and three good Samaritans. He was reported to have been yelling to his friends “I’m Ethan Couch – I’ll get you out of this.” Sergio Molina, one of the passengers in the bed of the pickup truck, is now paralyzed, minimally conscious and unable to speak.

    The Affluenza Defense at Trial in Criminal Court

    At trial, Couch’s attorney argued that the teenager could not appreciate the consequences of his actions as a result of being raised by wealthy, neglectful parents. A psychologist, called as an expert witness, testified that Couch suffered from “affluenza”, a term used on 1977 television show on PBS and in a book published shortly thereafter. Affluenza has been used to describe the difficulty and frustration in dealing with increasing materialism – the need to make sure that one is at least as wealthy as one’s neighbors.

    Fred Couch, Ethan’s father, has a history of encounters with the law. He was charged with four criminal misdemeanors and issued over a dozen traffic violations. Charges were dropped in two theft cases as a result of Mr. Couch paying substantial restitution to victims. As a result, the psychologist testified at trial that the boy never fully appreciated the consequences to one’s actions. As a result of living a life of cushioned life of virtually unlimited freedoms and liberties, the boy only understood that if you hurt someone, you simply paid them off.

    Sentenced to Probation, Rehabilitation by Texas Judge


    Couch eventually plead guilty to intoxication manslaughter charges. At sentencing, prosecutors asked for 20 years of jail time. State District Judge Jean Boyd of Tarrant County decided that Ethan Couch would be placed on 10 years of probation and spend an indeterminate amount of time in an expensive luxury rehabilitation center (Newport Academy), which would be paid by his parents. With Couch being given special treatment yet again, one wonders whether the cure is exacerbating the effects of the disease.

    Victims Turn to Civil Lawsuits for Justice


    At least five separate civil lawsuits have been filed against Ethan Couch, his father (Fred Couch), as well as the family business (Cleburne Metal Works), which owned the truck that Couch was driving while intoxicated during the fatal accident. Molina’s family is seeking $20 million to take care of their disabled son.

    Is Indifference to the Law an Excuse?


    At present, affluenza is not recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association or any other generally accepted professional mental health organization. The judge’s decision would seem to suggest that ignorance or indifference to the law is an excuse to escape punishment - at least if you're wealthy and coddled. It could set a dangerous precedent where only the poor must do the time if they plead guilty to the same crime. As opposed to their wealthy counterparts, they most probably do have prior experience facing the consequences of their actions as a result of being unable to afford each payoff to avoid criminal charges.

    Just a few miles away in Texas, former Dallas Cowboy football player, Josh Brent, was sentenced after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter. Brent received 180 days in jail, 10 years of probation and a $10,000 fine for the drunk driving accident that killed Jerry Brown - his friend, teammate and passenger in the car. Brent could have received up to 20 years in prison. While Brown's family forgave Brent for the accident, they sued the nightclub that allegedly served Brent enough alcohol to put his blood alcohol level over two times the legal limit in Texas.
    Legal Practice:
    Crime - DUI & DWI
    Jurisdiction:
    • Texas

    Michael M. Wechsler

    Michael M. Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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