Affluenza: Legal, but Unequal


Janani Ravikumar
Staff Writer

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch, tragic victim of the debilitating condition “affluenza,” killed four people in a drunk driving accident in 2013. Rather than being subjected to jail time like most adults in his position would have, Couch was sentenced to just ten years of probation, according to Al Jazeera. Victims of affluenza are physically incapable of differentiating between right and wrong, as wealthy parents apparently prevent their affluent children from understanding that their actions, both good and bad, will have consequences.

Couch, now eighteen, has recently come back into the spotlight. He and his mother went missing after a six-second video on social media showed that he had violated the terms of his probation, prohibiting him from driving, drinking alcohol and using drugs for ten years, The Guardian reports. Immediately, the two plotted their escape and fled to Mexico, leading Couch to miss a mandatory meeting with his probation officer. As the original crime was committed when he was sixteen, Couch will be at the mercy of the juvenile court system, Tarrant county district attorney, Sharen Wilson, is pushing for Couch to be transferred to an adult court.

In Texas, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a first drunk driving offense results in license suspension for up to one year, a fine of up to $500 and an alcohol education program at least twelve hours long, as well as additional fines, court costs, and legal fees if an attorney is involved. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), of the 99,195 DUI arrests in 2013, only 71,030 — about 72 percent — were convicted.

Theoretically, the concept of “affluenza” should not hold much sway over legal matters in the future since Couch’s case has gained so much notoriety, but this could set a precedent for minors in similar situations to be given significantly lighter sentences for grievous crimes, simply because of their family’s wealth. Considering how many minors coming from families of lower incomes and even different races are unfairly and overly harshly punished for just perceived crimes, crimes for which they are almost immediately acquitted after the punishment has already been dealt — Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, for example — Couch’s case, “affluenza” and all, has disturbing implications.

However, according to Daniel Filler, a law professor at Drexel University, using background histories to make clients appear more or less responsible for a crime is the core of a defense attorney’s work, according to USA Today. “The real truth is that our criminal justice system is suffering from ‘affluenza,’” Filler said, “because affluent people can afford better attorneys and better get better outcomes.”

This puts the wealthiest people — and, by proxy, children coming from the wealthiest families — above the law. Though Couch’s case was met with controversy, defense attorneys arguing for similar cases in the future can use this as a precedent. Regardless of the backlash, Couch succeeded because he did not have to face the consequences for his actions.

At the same time, those lucky enough to have avoided the horrible blight of “affluenza” will not be granted the same courtesy as Couch was — they will be forced to face the consequences of their actions. Depending on their background and even race, they may face even harsher punishments, if any at all, than their respective crimes warrant. Unfortunately, for most, this perpetuates the inherent inequality upon which the disease of affluenza is built.