As a criminal defense attorney, I live my life looking for unique and innovative explanations for criminal behavior.
But even I was taken aback by the audacity of the “affluenza” argument presented in the Ethan Couch case — and the court’s acceptance of the argument left me incredulous.
Couch, if you recall, is the young man who drank to excess at a party then got behind the wheel and caused a horrific accident that killed four and injured nine. It’s a crime called DUI manslaughter, and I’ve seen otherwise good kids get 10 to 20 years in prison for it.
But Couch, attorneys argued, suffered from “affluenza,” a made-up affliction that suggests the young man was so spoiled by his rich parents that he had never been given any boundaries and didn’t have the capacity to understand there are consequences to his actions.
Instead of 20 years in prison, which is what the prosecutor asked for, the judge sentenced Couch to 10 years of probation and a stint in a rehabilitation clinic. It’s an incredible break for someone responsible for the death of four people.
That’s why it is so infuriating that Ethan Couch, and probably his mother, went on the run after video surfaced of Couch violating his probation by drinking at a party.
As a defense attorney, here’s why I’m mad: There are often very good reasons to soften sentences for citizens accused, but not in the case of Ethan Couch.
A single-mother, late for work, faced child neglect charges for leaving her 8- and 11-year-old children home alone when the babysitter failed to show up. She deserved a break.
A man with no criminal history slowly became addicted to painkillers after a terrible accident. When he tried to purchase some on the street, he was arrested and faced a three year minimum mandatory sentence. He deserved a break.
A woman who suffered from battered spouse syndrome faced serious charges when she fought back against her abuser. She deserved a break.
Each of these people faced long-term incarceration, and it was up to a prosecutor or a judge to look at the extenuating circumstances and to use their discretion to offer something less than the maximum allowed by the law.
Ethan Couch got a far bigger break than he deserved. By squandering the opportunity he had been given, he has made the judge, and the system, look foolish. Because this is a high-profile case, judges across the country — who no doubt know about this case — will think twice about exercising their discretion, even where it’s appropriate. They will wonder whether they should take the risk of a creative sentence when it can come back to haunt them.
I fear people like the single mother, the accidental addict, or the battered spouse are the ones who will pay the price for Ethan Couch’s inexcusable violation of his very generous probation.
Judges have so little discretion already. Decades of “tough on crime” measures have saddled judges with minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines, leading to overcrowded jails filled with inmates serving longer sentences than warranted by the circumstances surrounding their crimes.
I would hate to see Couch’s reckless abuse of the court’s trust lead to a call for new minimum mandatory sentences on DUI manslaughter. Did you know that people driving over the legal blood alcohol limit can be, and often are, charged with DUI manslaughter because they were involved in a deadly accident that was obviously caused by someone else? Does that person deserve a mandatory 20 year sentence?
Texas Rangers are on the trail of Ethan Couch, and with the eyes of the nation watching, they are eager to make an example of him. Couch will be found, he will face violation of probation charges, and the judge will have the opportunity to undo the extraordinary leniency given during the sentencing.
I hope she uses her discretion to throw the book at Ethan Couch. And if there was any truth to the “affluenza” defense, then the judge should throw the book at the mother as well for whatever involvement she has in helping her son abscond from justice.
But I pray that other, more deserving accused citizens will not lose opportunities because of Ethan Couch’s deplorable behavior.