Defense of “Affluenza” is Discussed in Case of Texas Teen Who Received Probation for DWI Wreck that Killed Four

A high profile drunken driving case has made national headlines in Texas after a teen driver who killed four pedestrians while driving under the influence of alcohol, avoided jail time.

The trial of 16-year-old Ethan Couch attracted a massive level of media attention after a psychologist argued he was suffering from “Affluenza,” a condition in which children from rich families behave irresponsibly due to a sense of entitlement.

Affluenza is not a recognized diagnosis nor is it widely used as a form of criminal defense. However, the judge in the case sparked controversy by sentencing Couch to 10 years of probation after hearing from a psychologist.

Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

Investigators said Couch was driving a pickup truck between 68 and 70 miles-per-hour in a 40 mph zone in the Fort Worth area. The four people who died were standing on the side of the road outside their vehicles. Nine others were hurt.

Before the sentencing, Dick G. Miller, a psychologist called by the defense, testified that the teen’s life could be salvaged with one to two years’ treatment and no contact with his parents.

Miller explained Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called the teen a product of “affluenza,” a condition whereby his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between his behavior and its consequences.

In a subsequent story Associated Press quoted experts who said “affluenza,” should not be a criminal defense.

The article explained the term was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”

Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist said the term had subsequently been used to describe a condition in which children — usually from richer families — have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses fort their poor behavior, and sometimes “dabble in drugs and alcohol.” He said the term was never intended to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.

Miller has said the boy grew up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

AP also spoke to Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes on the effect of affluence on suburban communities. She said her research at Columbia University in New York demonstrates that 20 percent of upper middle-class adolescents believe their parents “would help them get out of a sticky situation at school, such as being caught for the third time on campus with a bottle of vodka.”

The case illustrates how unusual defenses are occasionally introduced to criminal proceedings and can even have an impact on DWI and manslaughter cases in which the defendant has admitted the charges. We zealously represent Texas defendants who are charged with DWI and intoxication manslaughter.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.