Shocking DUI Manslaughter Sentence Is Not The Lawyer’s Fault

There’s been an extraordinary amount of outrage over a sentence recently handed down in a DUI Manslaughter case. 16-year-old Ethan Couch admitted killing four people while driving drunk. He killed four pedestrians while going 70 miles per hour in a 40 zone. Nine bystanders were injured and one of his passengers is still in the hospital with severe brain damage.

Couch’s blood alcohol content was a .24, which is three times the legal limit. He also had Valium in his system. It is unlawful for a minor to drive with any amount of alcohol in his or her system.

At sentencing, his attorney came up with such a novel argument, that even he was probably stunned that it worked. The defense argued to the judge that the convicted drunk driving teen was a victim. He was a “victim of wealth.” To support their position, the defense called Psychologist G. Dick Miller to testify that the teen suffered from the affliction “affluenza.” He explained that it’s a condition in which “his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.” Miller further shared with the court that Couch’s parents never punished him for behavior, even when police discovered the teen passed out in a vehicle with a naked 14-year-old girl (in a separate, unrelated incident).

The judge stunned all those court observers, including the families of the victims, by sentencing the teen to ten years of probation. Additionally, in lieu of any incarceration, as part of his sentence, Couch will be sent to a private counseling center that costs $450,000, which will be paid for by his father.

This one, I just don’t get. I’ve handled countless DUI cases for more than two decades, as both a prosecutor and as a criminal defense attorney. The cases that I’ve prosecuted and/or defended have ranged from misdemeanor DUI (no injury) up to those resulting in serious bodily injury and/or death. Very few cases, if any, remotely offer any precedent for this light of a sentence for such a significant tragic offense. It seems to scream, “Miscarriage of justice.”

Additionally, I am having some challenges with this “affluenza” defense. If I understand it correctly, the argument is that the teenager committed an abhorrent act because he’s never been held responsible for his actions, so the judge shouldn’t hold him responsible. Seems absurd. Who I don’t blame is the attorney. He has an obligation to secure the best possible outcome for his client. If he thinks that he’ll have success arguing that aliens abducted his client and forced him to commit the offense, then he must make the argument. The judge has the option of embracing the argument, rejecting it and/or laughing out loud at the very sound of the words flowing from his lips.

I’ve represented countless teenagers and have creatively and passionately argued for leniency on their behalf. I applaud the defense lawyer for zealously doing his job. By making the arguments he did, he’s not saying that he approves of the actions of his client. His plan was to avoid incarceration and instead, get his client needed treatment.

In fairness to this judge, Jean Boyd, we don’t know if her decision was based on buying the “affluenza” argument or for some other reason(s). Regardless, the sentence looks really bad. It sends the wrong message to the public and also, to the next of kin.

My problem is with the judge’s judgment. What I think is best in a case like this is a sentence that combines a term of incarceration with treatment. It shouldn’t have been all of one and none of the other.

I do hope that this troubled teen realizes that he won the criminal justice lottery. I also hope that with that realization, he works hard to cure himself of “affluenza” and/or any other ailments from which he allegedly suffers. His life, and the lives of countless others depends upon it.