Introduction to the Affluenza Defense
Background Information on the Accident and Punishment
On June 15, 2013 a sixteen-year-old boy by the name of Ethan Couch was the source of a drunk driving accident that killed four people and paralyzed one.[i] At the time of the accident, Ethan Couch had a blood alcohol level of 0.24, which is three times the legal limit for drivers in Texas.[ii] Ethan Couch was also going 70 miles per hour in an area marked for 40 miles per hour.[iii] While the Tarrant County prosecutors sought for a punishment of twenty years in prison, the judge had other plans. Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Ethan Couch in juvenile court to stay away from drugs and alcohol, attend a rehabilitative facility, and just ten years of probation.[iv] Today, Ethan Couch is nineteen years old and has just been sentenced in adult court to 180 days per person that he killed, which is a total of just two years in prison for this horrific accident.[v] There has been a lot of outcry from the public about this case, not only because of the initial juvenile sentence of ten years of probation and now the adult sentence of two years of jail time – but because of the now infamous “Affluenza Defense”.
So who is this Ethan Couch who has stirred so much controversy at such a young age? Ethan Couch was born in 1997 in Tarrant County Texas to wealthy parents Tonya and Fred Couch. The Couch family business that brought in the family’s extensive wealth is a sheet metal business. Ethan Couch has been violating various laws and has had many run ins with the police prior to the fatal 2013 accident. It has been reported that Ethan Couch would drive himself to school at just thirteen years old. When the school called home to his parents, rather than punishing the son for driving without a license or for violating the law, the father offered to buy the school.[vi] Ethan’s parents are not ideal citizens either, and have had many issues with the law themselves. Ethan’s father has had charges against him, including charges of assault, criminal mischief, and theft by check – just to name a few.[vii] Ethan’s mother has also had numerous issues with the law, the most recent being when she fled to Mexico with her son after he violated parole and attempted to evade punishment.[viii]
Ethan Couch has also had issues with alcohol long before the fatal 2013 accident. Ethan Couch was cited for minor in consumption of alcohol and minor in possession of alcohol at the age of fifteen. He was sentenced to probation and community service for this charge. The list can go on and on with the family’s history of violating the law and never learning from their mistakes.
The Affluenza Defense
So, despite the previous run ins with the law, how is it that Ethan Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, rehabilitative services, and just two years of jail for killing four people while drinking and driving? Not only is drinking and driving illegal – underage drinking and driving typically carries a much heavier punishment. The defense team for Ethan Couch put together what is now well known as the Affluenza defense. This defense basically provided that Ethan Couch was so coddled by his parents while growing up, and was never taught right from wrong – in any sense, that he cannot be held responsible for his actions.[ix] The defense also provides that because of this, Ethan Couch was unequipped to deal with the legal consequences of his actions. While Ethan Couch’s defense team did not create this defense out of thin air, the use of this defense in a manslaughter case was incredibly controversial and probably more so than any other time it has been used in any other type of case.
Since the use of the Affluenza defense, lay people and experts alike have weighed in on their opinion to this defense. One of the professionals who spoke out about this case was Dr. Jeffrey L. Metzner.[x] Dr. Metzner made it clear in his statement that the Affluenza defense was NOT a psychiatric diagnosis.[xi] However, Dr. Metzner did describe this Affluenza defense – the entitlement, lack of empathy, and lack of boundaries, as very similar to a narcissistic personality disorder.[xii] Narcissistic personality disorder is in fact a psychiatric disorder and highly recognized by the mental health community. One thing that Dr. Metzner pointed out is that even if the Affluenza defense is basically a different label for a narcissistic personality, it is not a way to get out of the responsibilities of a person’s actions.[xiii] The narcissistic personality disorder is not an accepted excuse for liability, and neither should the Affluenza defense.
The Affluenza theory did not originate with Ethan Couch though. This theory can be traced back to the early 1990s to a book written by Jessie O’Neill, who was the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors.[xiv] The book was titled “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.[xv] The book describes how children of wealthy parents tend to grow up with a sense of entitlement. These children often make excuses for bad actions, rather than taking responsibility, and tend to have addictive and compulsive disorders, which often include drugs and alcohol.[xvi] Some how, despite illegal actions, children who have grown up this way tend to evade the law in one way or another. Ethan Couch is now just the poster boy for this type of person. The fact that Ethan Couch only got two years in jail for his devastating actions sets a dangerous precedent for others who have grown up in a similar manner. It just reinforces the learned behavior that either money can buy your way out of a situation, or that there will always be a way to evade responsibility – even in situations where it is clearly your fault. Click here for more information on other DUI defenses.
After the Accident
Since Ethan Couch was only sixteen years old when the accident occurred, he was tried in juvenile court.[xvii] Ethan Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, which prohibited from being around drugs and alcohol.[xviii] He was also sentenced to spend time at a locked down rehabilitative facility.[xix] Late last year in 2015, video footage was found of Ethan Couch at a party, with alcohol, which was in violation of his probation.[xx] When it became clear to Ethan Couch that this footage was made public, he and his mother fled to Mexico.[xxi] After two weeks, Mexican officials found Ethan Couch and his mother, and sent them back to the United States.[xxii] Ethan Couch has been in jail since his apprehension in January, but his mother was released on bail.[xxiii] His mother may be facing felony charges for fleeing with her son to Mexico.
As for Ethan Couch, the spotlight is still on fatal crash from 2013. Actually prosecuting him for his probation might actually be tricky because the probation violation was from a juvenile court order and now Ethan Couch is nineteen years old and has been transferred to the adult court system.[xxiv] For this reason, the judge in the adult system is not going to punish Ethan Couch for the violations of the juvenile court probation violation.[xxv] Whether or not something can be done with the juvenile court system will depend on the Texas legal system and how the courts decide to proceed. It is possible though for Ethan Couch to evade punishment for yet another violation of the law.
Conclusion of The Affluenza Defense: Then and Now
The name Ethan Couch and the Affluenza defense are going to be household terms for probably some time to come. While the previous actions of Ethan Couch were not publicized, the 2013 accident that claimed the lives of four people, and paralyzed one will ensure that every move Ethan Couch takes will be in the spotlight. The public has shown a lot of outrage for this seemingly light sentence that Ethan Couch received for the accident, and rightfully so. Surprisingly, the sentences for vehicular manslaughter are oddly low considering the magnitude of the offense. In Arizona, the possible sentence range for a vehicular manslaughter case that is caused by drinking and driving can have between only one to twenty-two years in jail or prison.[xxvi]
So, depending on the facts of the case, a person may get just a year for killing someone while drinking and driving. This has been the standard for a long time, and while some groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) argue these sentences are not harsh enough – the rest of the world is not too focused on this. So even though Ethan Couch received just two years in jail for the vehicular manslaughter charges, this is actually standard practice. The outcry about the case arises primarily from the Affluenza defense that was used to ensure he received a standard sentence, and not something more aggravated.
Even though Ethan Couch has been sentenced and will be in jail until 2018, it is unlikely that we will never hear his name in the media again. Considering that Ethan Couch broke his probation so shortly after receiving it, and fled the country in an attempt to evade the consequences of those actions just goes to show that even after killing multiple people, he still has no sense of responsibility and arguably, no morals.
[i] See Teenager’s Sentence in Fatal Drunken-Driving Case Stirs ‘Affluenza’ Debate. The New York Times. (Published December 13, 2013). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/us/teenagers-sentence-in-fatal-drunken-driving-case-stirs-affluenza-debate.html?_r=0
[iv] See The ‘affluenza’ sham: Two years is still not enough for killer of four. Pittsburg Post-Gazette. (Published April 18, 2016). http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2016/04/18/The-affluenza-sham-Two-years-is-still-not-enough-for-killer-of-four/stories/201604300036
[v] See Judge Sentences ‘Affluenza’ Teen Ethan Couch. ABC 13 Eye Witness News. (Published April 13, 2016). http://abc13.com/news/judge-sentences-affluenza-teen-ethan-couch/1289217/
[vi] See Profile of Ethan Couch’s parents, who attorneys argue spoiled him, made him irresponsible. Fox 4 News. (Published December 21, 2015). http://fox4kc.com/2015/12/21/profile-of-ethan-couchs-parents-who-attorneys-argued-spoiled-him-made-him-irresponsible/
[viii] See Clyde Hughes. Ethan Couch, ‘Affluenza’ Teen, Back in Texas After Escape to Mexico. News Max, Independent American. (Published January 28, 2016). http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/ethan-couch-deported-mexico-affluenza/2016/01/28/id/711697/
[ix] See Lily Rothman. The ‘Affluenza’ Defense is Older Than You Think. Time Magazine. (Published February 9,2016). http://time.com/4206296/affluenza-leopold-loeb/
[x] See Ashley Welch. What Psychiatrists Think of the ‘Affluenza’ Defense. CBS News. (Published December 30, 2015). http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-psychologists-think-of-the-affluenza-defense/
[xvii] See Dana Ford. Judge Orders Texas Teen Ethan Couch to Rehab for Driving Drunk, Killng 4. CNN News. (Published February 6, 2014). http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/05/us/texas-affluenza-teen/
[xxiv] See Mariano Castillo. ‘Affluenza’ teen caught, but will he get off easy? CNN News. (Published December 29, 2015). http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/29/us/affluenza-teen-ethan-couch-detained-in-mexico/
[xxvi] See Penalties for Drunk Driving Vehicular Manslaughter. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (Revised May 2012). http://www.madd.org/laws/law-overview/Vehicular_Homicide_Overview.pdf