“Affluenza Defense” To Be Banned?
The cover story in the May issue of D Magazine takes a rare look at Fort Worth. The infamous Ethan Couch and his dysfunctional parents are profiled two years after the horrendous DUI crash that killed a 24 year-old woman and three Good Samaritans and left a young man whom I represented totally paralyzed.
The article by Michael Mooney, who helped bring the American Sniper story to light, chronicles how the kid became a killer. He grew up in a huge home where he was given everything. For example, he was allowed to drive himself to school at 13; his father bragged that he was better than most drivers. At 15, he was given a F-150 with a Harley-Davidson package and unlimited freedom. His parents always praised him and never punished him. The parents were law-breakers themselves (see photos that follow). It’s not much surprise that he thought he was above the law.
Was The Juvenile Judge’s Decision Fair?
You will remember that the teen was largely relieved of responsibility. How did he get away with vehicular manslaughter and intoxication assault? Couch’s blood alcohol concentration was a shocking.24 percent and he had drugs in his system.
Every one assumed he would be sentenced to jail — presumably not the maximum 20 years, but for a while. After one witness, the defense’s psychologist, suggested that the kid was a victim of affluenza, that he was just too rich and coddled by his permissive parents to know any better, a volcano of outrage erupted. It is not clear that the judge was swayed by this comment in making her decision.
The article examines the uber controversial ruling that was criticized around the world. The judge sentenced Couch to an indefinite sentence in a rehabilitation facility and gave him a ten year probated sentence. She also prohibited him from driving, drinking, or using drugs for ten years, limited his contact with his parents, and required counseling in an effort to rehabilitate him. Other first time offender juveniles are often given options like these, according to other attorneys I’ve talked to since.
I was present during the three days of testimony and the sentencing and the victims’ families were devastated by the decision, as you can well imagine. But today’s Dallas Morning News reports that our state legislature is on the verge of passing new laws designed to do set kids straight and not turn immediately jail them if there is a chance of rehabilitation.
At the very least, the level of venom that the mention of affluenza raised discourages its use in future cases. Any affluenza defense may even be barred in Texas under pending legislation. Other state legislators have also considered laws that ban this defense strategy. A California lawmaker introduced an anti-affluenza defense bill last year that died in the House. And there simply is no excuse for driving drunk or stoned.
During 35 years of representing DUI victims and their families, this is the most gut-wrenching case I’ve been involved in. Hopefully parents read this article, remember the tragedy, and rein in any out-of-control teens so we can prevent disasters like this from happening again.