In 2013, Americans learned about a new epidemic — affluenza. As psychologist G. Dick Miller explained the phenomenon, children of wealthy parents are taught not the golden rule but “we have the gold, we make the rules.” The unsympathetic carrier of the affliction — Ethan Couch, Miller’s client, then 16 — pleaded guilty in 2013 to manslaughter charges after he killed four innocent people in a drunken driving accident. Prosecutors recommended that Couch serve 20 years in prison. The sentencing judge said she was not moved by the “affluenza” defense, but nonetheless, she chose to sentence the son of privilege to 10 years of drug- and alcohol-free probation, as well as a stint in a rehabilitation center.
“You’re basically saying that bad character is a defense or at least a mitigation to a criminal case,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
The lesson of the success of the “affluenza” defense is: If you think you have so much money that the law does not apply to you, you may be right.
Sometime after Couch emerged from a pricey Southern California rehab clinic known for offering equine therapy, yoga and martial arts instruction, Couch and his mother, Tonya, 48, headed to Mexico, whence young Couch missed a Dec. 10 appointment with his probation officer.
The pair took off after a video that showed young Couch playing beer pong went viral; drinking is a violation of his probation terms. Bristling at the young man’s light sentence for an offense that left four dead, prosecutors have been trying to move Couch’s case to the adult criminal justice system, where probation violations invite tougher consequences, when he turns 19 in April. So the Couches went for the border — after they threw themselves a going-away party.
Last week, Mexican authorities detained mother and son -- who had changed their appearance. Whereas Ethan Couch may have to do up to four months for violating juvenile probation when he is returned to Texas, Tonya Couch faces two to 10 years if convicted on a felony charge of hindering apprehension.
The Couch family’s arrogance is so offensive that most readers, no doubt, are rooting for the harshest sentence possible for mother and son. Ethan’s defense team flaunted its belief that the poor little rich kid shouldn’t have to go to prison because he was a poor little rich kid. Few would call the outcome justice. Couch evaded a prison sentence even though he tested at three times the legal alcohol limit (for drivers 21 or older) and had traces of Valium in his system when his pickup truck swerved into a stalled SUV owned by Breanna Mitchell, 24. Mitchell died along with three good Samaritans who were trying to help her —youth pastor Brian Jennings, 41, Hollie Boyles, 52, and her 21-year-old daughter, Shelby.
Anyone outside that courtroom could have predicted Couch would find himself in trouble with the law in short order. The “affluenza” defense demonstrated a refusal to face responsibility for a crime spree that started when Couch and friends stole some beer and ended with four corpses. Of course he ran. He’s not just some kid who screwed up. He’s a criminal.