Affluenza – a portmanteau combining affluence and influenza.
In December of 2013, Texas teenager Ethan Couch was found guilty of drunk driving, killing four pedestrians and injuring 11. Surveillance video showed Couch stealing beer from a store, then speeding off (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone) with seven passengers in a truck stolen from his father. His blood alcohol content was .24 – three times the legal limit for a Texas adult – when he was tested three hours after the accident (he also had traces of Valium in his system).
His attorneys, however, used the “afluenza” defense at his sentencing hearing. Backed by expert testimony from psychologist G. Dick Miller, his attorneys argued that the teenager was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege, and that he needed rehabilitation, not prison. His attorneys were successful, as Couch was only sentenced to ten years probation.
So because Couch’s wealthy parents could afford to hire good attorneys, they were able to excuse Couch’s actions, and extremely mitigate the consequences of those actions, by arguing that Couch did not understand the consequences of his actions because of his parents wealth? That’ll teach him that his actions have consequences.
The Texas legislature has responded. HB 109 precludes the trier of fact at a sentencing proceeding from considering “any evidence offered to establish that the defendant did not understand the consequences of the defendant’s actions because the defendant was raised in a household that was overly permissive due to affluent circumstances.”
Is this the beginning of the end of the Affluenza epidemic?
Jean-Paul Guidry is a Shreveport criminal lawyer.