affluenza defense

Affluenza — The Latest Outrageous Defense to Criminal Behavior

Crime, Lisa Bloom, News

With four dead, two critically injured, and one drunken teenage driver receiving no jail time, the recent case involving sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch suffering from a condition of having too much money, or “affluenza,” as the defense put it, has left the media in an uproar.  Was the teen just too rich to go to prison?

Couch and friends stole alcohol from a local Walmart. With a blood alcohol level at three times the legal limit in his system, Couch then crashed his car into some Good Samaritans who were helping a stranded motorist on the side of the road.  Couch was charged with manslaughter and intoxication assault.  Prosecutors sought a twenty year jail term for the teen.

During the trial, the defense psychologist Gary Miller testified that the teen suffered from affluenza, caused by his parents’ abundant wealth and providing him with “freedoms no young person should have.”  At thirteen, Couch was allowed to drive.  At fifteen, he was found naked in a car with an undressed teenaged girl, and no consequences followed.  In light of this, the judge gave Ethan a sentence of parole and treatment for his condition, to be paid for by his wealthy family.

While the idea of affluenza as a legal defense is new to our court system, the term has been around since 1954 when it was coined by Fred Whitman, combining the terms “influenza” and “affluence” during a 1954 study observing the dangers of inherited money in wealthy families. In 1997, a PBS special aired on the same topic, largely popularizing the term and calling it “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” In light of the recent trial of Ethan Couch, the film producers have spoken out, claiming their findings were merely social criticism, not psychiatry as the defense claimed.

This is not the first time an controversial defense has provided a lighter sentence to a guilty defendant. In 2010 Martin Joel Erzinger, a driver in Colorado, ran over a cyclist, Dr. Steven Milo, causing him to suffer from brain bleeding, spinal cord and cervical disc injuries and damage to his knee and scapula. His defense? He claimed the accident was due to a mixture of sleep apnea and his “new car smell.” To Milo’s dismay, Erzinger received ninety days in jail and one year probation as part of a plea bargain with the judge.

Then there is the famous “Twinkie defense,” used by Dan White’s attorneys in 1978 after White shot and killed George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a member of the Board of Supervisors and California’s first openly gay elected official. While White’s shooting was uncontested, the defense claimed he was not at fault for his actions after he ate Twinkies and other junk foods with sugar, as they diminished on his mental capacity. White was convicted on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter rather than the more appropriate charge of premeditated murder.  He served just five years in prison for taking two lives.

Are these defenses outrageous? Sure thing. How did they manage to work? No clue. The bright side is they tend to only work once, as the media tends to amplify these legal fumbles and blows them up for the world to see once they’re out there.

And then they’re done.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.