If you watched the news over the weekend then you’re probably familiar with the story getting national media attention about a wealthy Texas teen that killed four pedestrians while driving drunk. Prosecutors in the case sought the maximum 20-year prison sentence allowed by law but ultimately a judge decided to sentence 16-year old Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation instead. The lenient sentence has understandably sparked outrage from the relatives of the victims.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the case is the strategy the defense employed at Couch’s sentencing hearing. A psychologist testifying for the defense argued that the teen suffers from “affluenza” and therefore should not receive the maximum 20-year prison sentence. The term dates back to the 1980s and is used to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege. The defense psychologist further testified that due to “affluenza”, Couch was unable to link his bad behavior to any consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. According to Eric Boyles, an attorney representing a relative of two of the victims, just after the accident, the intoxicated Couch said to one of the passengers in his vehicle: “I’m Ethan Couch, I’ll get you out of this.”
According to authorities, Couch and his friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Wal-Mart prior to the incident. About three hours later, Couch and seven passengers driving in his father’s company-owned Ford F-350 were speeding and slammed into four pedestrians, killing all of them. Couch’s blood-alcohol content was recorded at 0.24, three times the legal limit for drivers in Texas.
Several of the truck’s passengers were injured as well, including two teens that were thrown from the bed of the truck. One of them sustained a severe brain injury, paralysis and remains in a minimally responsive state. The parents of this teen have already filed a civil suit against Ethan Couch, his parents and his father’s company.
The story certainly puts a microscope on our criminal justice system. The idea that a person could be responsible for killing four people and permanently inuring another yet avoided any prison time is rather difficult to comprehend. Judge Jean Boyd did not discuss the reasoning behind her sentence but it’s conceivable that the defense psychologist’s testimony regarding “affluenza” swayed her decision. Perhaps Judge Boyd purposefully avoided explaining her sentence for fear of the precedent she might set. Acknowledging that Couch’s wealth and affluence was a mitigating factor in his sentence has the potential to turn being rich into a get out of jail free card. Furthermore, if being wealthy was Couch’s “affliction”, what lenience should the justice system show to the poor? Some would argue being poor has an even more significant negative impact on behavior and decision making than does being wealthy. Should the poor then be excused from committing certain crimes?
As you can see, this case and sentence certainly raises some important issues involved in our criminal justice system. While the victim’s families undoubtedly feel that the criminal justice system has failed them, they can take some solace in the fact the Couch still faces civil liability for his actions. As mentioned above, one of the passengers in the bed of the truck has already filed suit against Couch and suits from the other injured passenger and the four victims are sure to follow.
Stories like this one are a tragic reminder of the devastating effects a drunk driver can cause. At Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, we make it our goal to raise community awareness about the inherent dangers of drunk driving and to hold responsible those who needlessly injure innocent victims due to their own negligent decisions. If you or a loved was injured by a drunk driver please contact our experienced drunk driving accident attorneys today. Reach us at 727-451-6900.