Affluenza or How the Wealthy get Away With Murder

Could affluenza be the latest excuse for teens of wealth to get away with murder? The basic description suggests in order suffering from affluenza, a teen must be raised in an environment where they are not taught to take responsibility for their actions. They must also have a sense of entitlement, be irresponsible, and make excuses for their behavior. This is the definition used by the Psychologist in the Ethan Couch case. Couch received a lighter than normal sentence after he killed four and injured two in a drunk driving accident.

The Judge in the Couch case sentenced the teen to probation along with a short stint, as little as nine months, in a rehabilitation center. The families of the victims are angry because they believe that wealth more than anything played a crucial role in the sentencing. The husband and father of two of the victims, Eric Boyles, during a recent interview, stated that without his wealth and privilege the outcome would have been drastically different.

Are wealthy teenagers less likely to do time for their crimes than their impoverished counterparts? While there is no doubt that a divide exists between the classes in this country, it is seen more so in the justice system. Cases where the suspect is poor tend to have longer sentences than cases where the defendant is wealthy, and can afford a better attorney. Justice is supposed to be blind, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case many times.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) however, teens which are tried in DUI or DWI cases are almost always recommended for rehabilitation and probation. This particular case made national headlines, though, when his wealth was brought into the spot light. Although there were other mitigating factors, the use of affluenza as a defense has left people believing this is how a wealthy child gets away with murder. Pundits are quick to suggest the Couch is being handled differently than his peers simply based on the size of his parents’ checking account.

In Texas, the crimes of intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault carry a harsher sentence than vehicular manslaughter. They are also a lot harder to prove, since it has to be shown that the intoxication was the direct cause of the manslaughter. If proven, the sentence can be anywhere from 2 to 20 years and can be concurrent or consecutive sentencing. In Couch’s case, he was looking at anywhere from 8-80 years; at least that is what the prosecuting attorney thought prior to sentencing. This alone could have played a part in why the judge decided on probation and rehabilitation. In an interview with the press prior to trial the prosecutor stated that he wanted Couch to spend time in prison after his nineteenth birthday and therefore would be looking at determinate sentence. By seeking this harsher sentence, the prosecutor was almost assured with conviction that Couch would spend at least twenty years in prison. It also would mean a longer sentence than was typical for children Couch’s age to receive.

It appears that affluenza has played an intricate role in determining punishment. At least in this particular case, where a young affluent man is serving a sentence that would be typical for anyone his age to serve, yet the public outcry is based simply on his parents’ checking account. Most people who hear about Ethan Couch will automatically wonder how a boy of privilege is being allowed to get away with manslaughter without realizing that he is receiving a sentence not based on his wealth, but rather his age. It is easy in a country that is so divided for people to assume that wealthy children are treated differently; however, there is no direct evidence that a young poor male from Texas would be sentenced harsher simply because of his financial status. Typically speaking affluenza could be used in many different cases where a child is being tried for murder, not just among the wealthy; especially when the definition is so broad and could apply to children who are not financially affluent.

Editorial By Rachel Woodruff

Brent Mayr Law

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