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'Affluenza' May Be a Defense for DUI, But Will it Work for Violating Probation?

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Jan 06, 2016 | 0 Comments

What is 'Affluenza" as it relates to DUI Defense?

The now 18-year-old Ethan Couch scored infamous national attention back in 2013 when, at 16, he was involved in a drunk-driving accident that killed four people and injured 9 in North Texas. The national attention did not stem from the accident alone, but from the defense attorney's successful argument that the teen was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his family's wealth and lack of discipline. Prosecutors said Couch's blood-alcohol level was three times the Texas legal limit and he was driving 30 mph over the speed limit when he lost control of his father's pickup truck and hit a group of people.  Dr. G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who was the defense's expert witness, testified that Couch's behavior is a condition experienced by many wealthy families, where children feel “a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, and make excuses for poor behavior” as a result of their parents' failure to create limitations for their children- a condition branded as “affluenza”. 

As a result of this controversial testimony, State District Judge Jean Boyd ordered ten years of probation for the fatal accident, despite the fact that the prosecution sought the maximum punishment of twenty years of prison time. This case helped embed the term “affluenza” in American courtrooms as a valid criminal defense; however, the word itself became popular in the late 1990s when the granddaughter of General Motors president, Jessie O'Neill, wrote a book titled The Golden Ghetto:  The Psychology of Affluence.  The book highlights how the acquisition of wealth ultimately leads many to a sense of “hollow achievement.”  As a psychotherapist, O'Neill based her practice on treating the unique problems of those who have obtained great sums of wealth.  The term was also used in a PBS special titled “Affluenza”, which explores the high environmental and social costs of overconsumption and materialism.

Will 'Affluenza' be a successful argument for a violation for DUI probation violation?

In recent news, a video came to light in early December showing several young people drinking, one of which is suspected to be Couch – the authorities have yet to confirm publicly that Couch was in the video. Still, consuming alcohol would be in direct violation of the terms of Couch's probation, which could result in a re-sentencing of Couch's case and more than probable jail time.

Couch failed to meet with his probation officer following the release of the video and authorities then issued a warrant for his arrest. The search for Couch became a federal matter as rumors that Couch and his mother fled the country began surfacing. After being tipped off by a Domino's pizza delivery driver, Couch and his mother were arrested in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

A judge at a Mexican immigration court will preside over Couch's deportation case and will have three months to make a ruling concerning being sent back to the United States to be tried regarding violating his probation.  Fernando Benitez, Couch's new lawyer, argues that kicking Couch out of Mexico would violate his rights because “[h]e hasn't committed a crime in Mexico.” Benitez also claims to be willing to appeal the judge's decision should he see fit and “take this [case] to the full extent of our capacity and have whoever needs to review it.”

Couch will remain in Mexico until the legal process is fully vetted and his mother, who has been returned to the US, is in custody facing a 10 year jail sentence for hindering her son's arrest. While this is certainly an interesting turn of events in Couch's case, one questions remains:  Will the argument and defense of “affluenza” extend internationally - keeping Couch out of US jail once again and allowing him to remain in Mexico?

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 18 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.


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