“Affluenza defense” generates controversy in TX DUI case

A lot of attention has been given to Texas Judge Jean Boyd, who sentenced Ethan Couch, 16 years old, to ten years probation for causing the deaths of four people while driving with a BAC three times the legal limit.

The defense attorney argued that the teenager’s parents had failed to properly raise their son.  He claimed that they had had an acrimonious divorce, did not spend sufficient time with him, teach him proper behavior, and gave him everything he ever wanted.  The defense attorney claimed that the boy suffered from “affluenza.”

From Slate:

According to police, Couch was going 70 miles-per-hour in his father’s Ford F-350 pickup in a 40 mph zone when he lost control and started a deadly chain of collisions that claimed the lives of: 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell, whose car had broken down on the side of the road; Hollie Boyles and her 21-year-old daughter Shelby, who lived nearby and had come outside to help Mitchell; and Brian Jennings, a youth pastor who was also playing the role of good samaritan. Two of the seven passengers riding in Couch’s truck were also seriously injured.

Earlier in the night, police say that several of the passengers were caught on camera stealing two cases of beer from a local Walmart. At the time of the crash, Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit for an adult, and also had traces of Valium in his system, according to police. He pleaded guilty last week to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

From the Huffington Post:

The 16-year-old boy was sentenced Tuesday in a Fort Worth juvenile court to 10 years of probation after he confessed to intoxication manslaughter in the June 15 crash on a dark rural road.

Prosecutors had sought the maximum 20 years in state custody for the Keller teen, but his attorneys appealed to state District Judge Jean Boyd that the teenager needed rehabilitation not prison…

[Judge] Boyd said the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the kind of intensive therapy the teen could receive at a rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif., that was suggested by his defense attorneys. The parents would pick up the tab for the center, at a cost of more than $450,000 a year for treatment.

Scott Brown, the boy’s lead defense attorney, said he could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence.

But instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.

A psychologist called as an expert defense witness said the boy suffered from “affluenza,” growing up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce.

The father “does not have relationships, he takes hostages,” psychologist Gary Miller said, and the mother was indulgent. “Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it,” he said.

I am not surprised that this story has blown up, as the “affluenza defense” is the type of meme that generates controversy.  Of course, it is not truly a defense, it is an attempt to explain the boy’s behavior.

I am not fully convinced that “affluenza” is why the judge sentenced him to probation, in large part because it isn’t much of an excuse.  A person who grows up in a well-off home, with successful parents, should know right from wrong.

On the other hand, his age and lack of maturity may have swung the judge to consider probation.  What gets lost in the “affluenza” frenzy is the fact that recent scientific studies have shown that the teenage brain is still in development, and that the teenage mind does not weigh risks the same way that adults do.  In other words, the normal teenage brain, before adding alcohol into the equation, is already geared towards reckless behavior.  In this case, the teenager had a 0.24 BAC, meaning that his perception of the risks involved and the possible consequences were highly distorted.

Here is a link to the factors in mitigation that a judge in Illinois has to consider when sentencing a criminal defendant.  They include:  the defendant’s mental state, whether he or she was under a disability, whether the crime was intended, the defendant’s character and whether the crime is likely to be committed again. Did this defendant have the capability to fully appreciate the consequences of his actions?

In Illinois, this defendant would be facing the possibility of from six to 28 years in the penitentiary, and probation could only be given in “exceptional circumstances.”  I don’t think affluenza would merit those exceptional circumstances, though possibly his age would.  More likely in Illinois he would receive a sentence in the 8 to 12 year range.

What do you think is the appropriate sentence?

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