Courting Justice: A Look at Affluenza From the Criminal and Civil Side of the Court System

December 19, 2013

Me: Affluenza!

You: God Bless You.

Me: Hey, I didn’t sneeze. The word Affluenza is a new criminal defense for juveniles to avoid jail time by claiming that their rich parents didn’t teach them right from wrong.

You: Surely, you can’t be serious?

Me: I am. And don’t call me Shirley.

Ethan Couch, age 16, born into a rich family and, while driving drunk out of his gourd, killed four people and injured two others. At his juvenile trial, he admitted responsibility. During the sentencing phase, his legal team sought leniency on the grounds that he suffered from Affluenza; a condition that afflicts children from wealth because their parents gave them a sense of entitlement and never set proper boundaries to curtail their reckless conduct.

The judge could have given Ethan a 20 year prison sentence with the first three years in a juvenile detention facility. When he turned 19, he would be sent to adult prison for the remainder of his sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years probation and time in a posh alcohol rehab facility (at his parent’s expense).

The Twitter universe, the Facebook universe and even aliens from a different universe are furious. If a rich person kills someone, they get pampered. If a poor person kills someone, their lives are destroyed.

People who work in the criminal justice system seem to be taking two separate views of the situation. On one hand, there are those who call the Affluenza defense horse sh*t. Even if Couch’s parents didn’t teach him social responsibility, that doesn’t mean he could not have learned it in other ways. Millions of kids grow up without proper parental supervision but are able to learn right from wrong through normal activities of daily living.

On the other side of the fence are those that remind us that the juvenile justice system is much different than the adult criminal justice system. The juvenile system seeks to have the child take responsibility for his action and then seeks to rehabilitate instead of punish. In just the last few years, science has proven that the part of the brain that controls judgment, particularly in males, doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their twenties. We shouldn’t ignore this new science. Therefore, we should now give all children the greatest chance to rehabilitate.

Interesting arguments.

Fortunately for me, I work in the civil side of the system. Under common law principles, children between the ages of 1 and 7 cannot be negligent. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 are said to have a rebuttable presumption that they understand what negligence is. Children over the age of 14 can be charged with negligence.

Ethan Couch was 16. Sorry, Ethan. No, ifs, ands, or buts, you were negligent as hell. There is no Affluenza defense on the civil side of the law. I wouldn’t hesitate in a second to sue his whiny punk ass*. Additionally, I would sue his parents for negligent bailment of the automobile because they knew or should have known of his proclivity towards recklessness. Sorry Mom and Dad Couch, you’re going down as well as I would advise my clients not to stop at the upper limits of your automobile insurance coverage.

As Eddie Murphy said in the 1982 movie Trading Places, “The best way to get even with [teach a lesson to] a rich person is to turn them into a poor person.”

Well said, Eddie. Well said.

*Yes, this is how I talk in real life. Ask my wife.