Should “Affluenza” Be a Legitimate DUI Defense?


This is the word that most aptly describes the mood of the nation after various news outlets reported that the teen who killed four people in a drunk driving car accident would get 10 years probation—no jail time.

The details of the case are tragic. Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old Texas, boy, stole a case of beer with a group of friends from a local Walmart. They then had a party at his home. Later, the group piled into Couch’s pickup truck, with Couch as the driver.

Driving 70 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone, Couch swerved off of the road and killed four pedestrians. Couch had a blood alcohol limit of 0.24, or three times the legal limit for adults: 0.08. As a minor, Couch should not have had any alcohol in his system.

Three pedestrians were helping Ms. Mitchell, whose car had broken down on the side of the road. In addition to the four pedestrians killed, two teenagers who were riding in the back of Couch’s pickup were thrown from the vehicle; one of them suffered a severe brain injury.

Couch’s defense argued, in part, that the teenage boy suffered from “affluenza,” a term coined in the 1980s to describe the psychological problems of affluent people. A psychologist called by the defense stated that, because Couch was given “freedoms no young person should have” and raised by parents who equated money with privilege, he was unaware that his actions had consequences.

The judge did not specify why she handed down a sentence of 10 years probation in a long-term treatment facility—the costs of which, at more than $400,000 a year, his parents will pay—instead of the 20-year prison sentence requested by the county prosecutors.

Some speculate, according to the New York Times, that the sentence is part of a growing trend toward rehabilitation instead of punishment. Others, however, have regarded the sentence with disgust. One headline on said, “Being rich is now a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The families of the victims are also understandably upset with the sentence. The husband of one of the women killed stated, “I’m sure the judge is doing what she thinks is probably right for Ethan’s rehabilitation. But from the victims’ standpoint, she underestimated the impact. Words can’t describe how disappointed I am in terms of how the judicial system works.”

Though the victims’ families may be extremely disappointed in the criminal justice process, they may be able to find some measure of justice in the civil litigation process. The families could file a wrongful death lawsuit to hold Couch and his parents responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. In fact, the parents of the boy riding in the back of the truck have filed suit against Couch, his parents, and his father’s company.

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims as they cope with their devastating loss.

We’d like to know what you think: should Couch have received a tougher sentence?