Rich Teen Walks Away From DWI Case with “Affluenza” Defense

Crime, News

For most people, vehicular manslaughter in a DWI wreck means lots of time behind bars for the offender. Sometimes, however, people like Ethan Couch get out of a 20-year sentence simply because they are rich.

After killing 4 and injuring numerous people, 16-year-old Ethan Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury. Prosecutors had asked that the youth be sentenced to 20 years in a state lockup. The teen was instead sentenced to 10 years probation, although he could go to prison for 10 years if he violates the terms of his probation.

The sentence might seem like the kid got the royal treatment; the reality, however, is that the teen could have been freed in two years if the judge had sentenced him to 20 years. Instead, a sentence was fashioned that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for 10 years, lessening the chance of good behavior leading to leniency and more harmful decisions on the teen’s part.

Defense attorneys recommended a lengthy probationary term at a rehabilitation facility that can cost more than $450,000 a year. The parents would pay for the therapy.


Psychologist Gary Miller, who evaluated Ethan Couch, claims the kid has been taught that money fixes everything. Couch’s parents gave him  a motorcycle when he was 4; he was driving large pickups at 13; he was given nice things, and was taught few morals — the good things good parents teach their children, Miller said. The hope is that, if the teen gets help (learning, for example, that you say sorry when you hurt someone, instead of just sending them money to make the problem go away), perhaps he could become a contributing member of society.

“This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller said. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

The term “affluenza” was used by Couch’s defense lawyers to explain that he had a “condition.” His rich parents had not taught him about consequences, and he was therefore not responsible for killing four people while driving his truck with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. The irony, obviously, is that affluenza is really the tragic American condition that kept Couch from suffering the consequences of his action, in popular opinion. Affluenza, in fact, is not a recognized illness.  It is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The term doesn’t even mean what Couch’s defense lawyers intended it to mean, as it is mostly a pop-psychology term used to describe the “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon.

Some news reports are comparing Couch’s outcome to that of a 14-year-old African American boy sentenced to 10 years juvenile detention by the same judge for one death resulting from a punch.  The cases obviously aren’t identical; however, it’s hard to not feel that wealth matters to the criminal justice system quite often, if at least in the sense that the rich are more respectable and deserve more of a chance than the poor.

Ultimately, it is sad that children are spoiled by parents who turn a blind eye to their reckless behavior. While society would benefit from more parents setting boundaries at home and raising more upstanding citizens, one can hope that the justice system will work to enforce consequences some parents don’t.