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Affluenza? Really?

If you haven't been under a rock for the past few days, you've undoubtedly heard about the Texas drunk driving case in which a teenager from a wealthy family avoided prison time thanks to his "affluenza" defense.

Gavel, Alcoholic Drink & Car Keys on a Gradating to White Background - Drinking and Driving Concept.
Andy Dean Photography

Lawyers for 16-year-old Ethan Couch found a psychologist to testify - as an expert witness - that his wealthy and contentious home life led him to believe that his reckless actions had no consequences. How his attitude differs from that of some kids I consider to be average middle-class teenagers isn't clear, but in this case, the defense worked to Crouch's advantage. He received only 10 years probation for killing four people while high on alcohol (his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit) and drugs.

So many people have asked me questions about "affluenza" over the past few days that I thought I'd try to explain some of the confusing issues here. After all, most of us are parents and grandparents. If we raise our kids without limits, will they, too, avoid serious consequences if they commit crimes?

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Probably not, for any number of reasons.

First, the defense didn't raise a typical insanity claim here. Perhaps recognizing that it's pretty darn hard to win a case that way, Crouch's attorneys chose not to argue that he didn't understand what he was doing or that what he was doing was wrong. They simply asserted that he wasn't used to being held accountable for the consequences of his actions. Because the "affluenza" defense doesn't fit neatly into an established legal defense, it's unlikely to be successful in the vast majority of cases, even if it is raised again.

Second, remember that personality disorders don't excuse criminal behavior. All kinds of sociopaths (think Ted Bundy) and narcissists (remember the woman who drove over her cheating husband in a Mercedes?) are running around, but they end up in jail. Certainly, if a criminal defendant has a psychiatric issue, that illness may help explain why he committed the crime. But it won't exonerate him or keep him out of prison.

Third, the publicity surrounding this case has certainly soured the legal landscape when it comes to affluenza. After all, if you were a judge, would you want to take on this kind of fire? Jean Boyd, the judge in Couch's case, may well be wishing she were under a rock right now.

And one last question: Why on earth would Ethan's lawyers raise this defense? Didn't it sound dumb even to them? Didn't they know that they'd incur the public scorn? Didn't they know that arguing that rich kids shouldn't go to jail when poor kids do all the time was just plain, uh, icky?

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The answer to all of the above is probably a resounding "yes." But remember this: Along with keeping Couch out of jail, his parents' money allowed him to hire top lawyers and pay them top dollar. Criminal defense attorneys have an obligation to defend their clients zealously.  And so they gave it a try.

And in the end, everyone had a big payday ... except for the victims.

Photo: Feverpitche/iStockphoto


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