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Poor Little Rich Kid: The Affluenza Defense

20-Dec-2013

Last week, a Texas teenager who killed four people and permanently disabled another while driving drunk escaped prison when a judge sentenced him to treatment and probation only.

Approximately six months ago, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and his friends stole beer from a Walmart store. After returning to Couch's home, the teens began drinking heavily before deciding to go for a joy-ride. Couch and six friends piled into the teen's Ford F-350 pickup truck, with two friends riding in the bed. 

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell was having car trouble. Her SUV had a blowout, and she called her friend Shelby Boyles for help. Shelby and her mother, Hollie, hopped in their car and headed to Breanna. While they were trying to take care of the disabled vehicle, Brian Jennings came upon them. Jennings, a youth pastor, stopped to help the women.

That's when Ethan Couch slammed into them, his F-350 travelling at approximately 70 miles per hour in a 40 miles per hour zone. The four pedestrians were killed, and the two teens in the bed of Couch's truck were thrown from the vehicle.  Sergio Molina, 15 at the time of the accident, is paralyzed and has been in a persistent vegetative state since the accident.

Texas has zero-tolerance for underage drinking and driving, meaning that a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.0 percent can lead to a DUI conviction for drivers under the age of 21. Adult drivers are charged with DUI with a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater. 

Three hours after the accident, Ethan Couch had a BAC of 0.24 percent and was also found to have Valium in his system.

According to Couch's defense team,  however, the teen was not responsible for his actions. His manslaughter defense lawyer brought in an expert witness, a psychologist who determined that Couch suffered from "affluenza"-- because his upbringing was so privileged and because his parents did not set limits for him, Couch did not know right from wrong. In other words, he was too spoiled to be responsible.

Whether or not Couch knew right from wrong, his actions at the scene seem to indicate that he did not care. After the accident, the teen told a passenger, "I'm Ethan Couch. I'll get you out of this," as if his self-importance were enough to mitigate any trauma or tragedy. He was described as non-cooperative at the scene, saying, "I'm outta here," and attempting to walk away, showing no remorse for killing four people and critically injuring his friends.

While the general public is outraged by the use of the "affluenza defense," Judge Jean Boyd seemed to buy it. She sentenced the teen to 10 years probation and treatment at a private facility with a price tag of $450,000 a year. This ultra-lenient sentence stands in stark contrast to the 20 years in prison recommended by prosecutors.

Certainly, defense attorneys have used a difficult upbringing as mitigating circumstances in a trial before. Often, those who are victims of childhood abuse and neglect or those who grow up in homes where drug addiction and violence are the norm follow in the precedent set for them. But to claim that a child should not have consequences for his actions because he never had to face consequences before seems a bit of a stretch.

Clearly, the "affluenza defense" does not sit well with the general public. Judge Boyd asserts that locking Eric Couch up until he is in his mid-thirties simply moves him from one broken system to another. However, demonstrating once again that his actions do not have serious consequences will likewise be unlikely to make him a productive citizen.

Seldom are lengthy prison sentences the best possible solution to any case. If rehabilitation is an option, then it serves a better purpose than incarceration. However, saying that a person is too entitled, too rich, and too spoiled to have to serve the consequences of his actions leaves a bitter taste.



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