The Affluenza Defense: A Dangerous Precedent in a Fatal DUI Case
A recent Texas DUI manslaughter verdict has victim advocates concerned that wealth may increasingly be used as a legal defense for negligence. The verdict arose from the trial of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old boy who killed four people and injured two in a drunk driving crash on June 15, 2013.
Couch’s defense attorney successfully argued the teen’s wealthy upbringing absolved him of guilt because Couch’s parents had never taught him to be accountable for his actions. The defense team used the term “affluenza” as a label for Couch’s “condition” of affluence and entitlement. A psychologist in the trial testified Couch had been raised in an atmosphere where he had little understanding that “sometimes you don’t get your way.”
Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter by intoxication and two counts of assault by causing bodily injury. Court records show Couch’s actions led him to steer a pickup truck into a disabled vehicle parked on the side of a road in Burleson, Texas. The crash killed four people. Two teens riding in the bed of the pickup truck suffered serious injury.
State sentencing guidelines call for as much as 20 years in prison and fines of $10,000 in such a case. However, State District Judge Jean Boyd suspended jail time and instead sentenced the teen to 10 years of probation. On February 5, she denied prosecutors’ request for up to 20 years in prison for severely injuring two of the teens in the back of the pickup.
Florida personal injury lawyer and mother Debi Chalik was angered and alarmed by the outcome of the trial.
“It is criminal to allow wealthy people to live above the law by permitting them to get away with murder with nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Debi said.
“This kind of result perpetuates the longstanding belief that money can buy off the justice system. What happened to the notion that everyone is equal under the law?”
Debi questioned the logic and ethics of allowing someone to escape punishment because of his privileged upbringing.
“It is absurd to allow a young, spoiled kid to avoid incarceration after killing four innocent people on the basis that his wealth and privileged lifestyle drove him to drink and drive,” Debi said. “Not only is he privileged in his daily life, but that privilege is now allowing him to live above the law.”
Like many safety and victims’ right advocates, Debi is concerned about the ripple effect of the “affluenza defense” in other states and cases.
“This dreadful decision will now create a two-tiered system in the criminal justice system, whereby the wealthy will receive a slap on the wrist and the average American will receive jail time for the exact same crime,” Debi said.
Public outcry over the Couch case led to a petition that called for Texas Gov. Rick Perry to remove Judge Boyd from the bench. Additionally, Couch and his father, Fred Couch, have been the target of five lawsuits filed by victims’ families. Victims also have filed suit against Fred Couch’s company, Cleburne Metal Works. The company owns the pickup truck involved in the fatal DUI accident.
Court records indicate Couch was driving 30 mph above the speed limit at the time of the deadly collision. His blood alcohol level was three times the state’s legal limit for adult drivers.
Help after Personal Injury Involving a Drunk Driver in Florida