It was one of most noteworthy criminal stories of the last year. Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager known as the “affluenza” teen, had been convicted of killing four people in a drunk driving accident in 2013. The trial was made notable by the defense mounted for the then sixteen-year-old. Rather than blaming alcohol or substance addiction or the naivety of youth; attorneys mounted a different, if not controversial, defense. They pointed to a history of bad parenting and permissiveness which led to the inability to distinguish between right and wrong. This defense has come to be known colloquially as “affluenza”.
The use of such a defense in a court of law seems to be fairly novel. The idea of “affluenza” is not new, however. A recent New York Times article, points to use of the concept to describe a range of misdeeds dating back to 1954, although none of these were in the context of a murder trial. In the case of Ethan Couch, it was used to defend the teen amidst some very serious charges. In court testimony, Couch was said to have stolen beer from a local store with some friends. The group later took a pick-up truck joyriding down a winding country road with Couch behind the wheel despite being three times the legal driving limit. The truck crashed into 4 pedestrians and two vehicles, injuring nine and killing four.
Despite not being in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, attorneys argued that Couch suffered from the inability to understand the consequences of his actions simply because he had never been brought to task for them in the past. They pointed to the cars and monetary allowances provided to Couch. His defense psychologist argued that his parent’s permissiveness, not punishing their child when he chose to drive at the age of 13 for example or got caught behind the wheel at 15 with an unconscious, undressed 14-year-old girl. While it didn’t win them favor in the court of public opinion, Couch’s attorneys did a remarkable job in defending their client. This defense was able to spare their client prison time, in favor of ten years of probation and mandatory psychological treatment.
This is the first lesson to learn from the case of the “affluenza teen”; the attorney’s job is to garner the best possible outcome for their client, even if it is incredibly unpopular. An attorney that can find a unique and successful defense for a client, even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds is a valuable asset indeed. In this case, the attorney did not make the teen or his family look good by any stretch of the imagination. This can be a tough sell to a defendant, since it is human nature to want to have people like and respect you. However, in this case, the teen trusted the attorney’s judgment, and even though it made Couch a pariah in the court of public opinion, in the court of law it offered a very lenient sentence for such an offense.
This case has a post script, however. At the end of 2015, Couch was allegedly videotaped playing a drinking game, in violation of his probation which dictates the Couch abstains from drugs and alcohol. Bear in mind that Ethan Couch is only 18 and not yet of drinking age. So, in addition to again breaking the law it appears that Couch had not learned his lesson. This leads to the second lesson to be learned from this case, don’t violate your probation. A probation violation can lead to incarceration in an adult jail as well as steep fines, longer probation and prison time for the teen. If a judge feels that his or her orders have been ignored, they are far more likely to respond with more severe punishments. Lesson two, probation is an opportunity to turn yourself around. Don’t squander it!
What tipped authorities off to his bad behavior was when Evan Couch failed to appear at his meeting with his probation officer. This is what initially sparked the manhunt for the teen and opened the door into an investigation of his activities. It is also a great way to get on law enforcement’s bad side. Failing to appear at scheduled meetings with a probation officer can be a violation in and of itself. The third lesson in this case is to work with your probation officer and don’t miss meetings.
Finally, as the case garnered more and more media attention it became apparent that the teen fled to Mexico with his mother in the hopes of avoiding any further penalties. This is the fourth and final lesson to be learned in the case, don’t run! If you find yourself in violation of probation the best thing that you can do is to contact your attorney to get the situation worked out. Running only exacerbates and already difficult situation. Movies and popular culture make it appear that fleeing to Mexico will immediately call off the manhunt. In reality, extradition agreements with many foreign countries mean that criminals that cross into other countries may not be out of reach for law enforcement.
The Ethan Couch case is a great example of what not to do if you are handed an opportunity like 10 years of probation for a crime as serious as murder. Chances are, if Mr. Couch had consulted his attorney before he decided to flee the country he could be facing a very different outcome. If you find yourself in legal trouble, help is only a phone call away. Call Diemer Law at 314-683-8833.