Affluenza: The Wealthy’s Ticket to Freedom

Cartoon by Emma Hines.

On June 15, 2013 16-year-old Ethan Couch got in his red Ford F-350 drunk on the grain alcohol Everclear and high on marijuana and his prescription medication and caused a crash killing four people and injuring nine others. On Monday, he was released after two short years at Tarrant County Jail on charges virtually unrelated to the fatal crash.

Couch made headlines in 2013 after he received 10 years probation when his lawyer blamed “affluenza,” arguing his client was too rich and spoiled to tell right from wrong.

Although he had initially avoided prison, Couch, now 20, served jail time after violating his probation. He was filmed drinking alcohol at a party in 2015 and he and his mother fled to Mexico. They were found in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, and flown back to the US where the teenager was ordered to jail for 720 days.

His mother, Tonya Couch, was charged with hindering apprehension of a known felon and money laundering, but was released after posting bond. Last week the 50-year-old failed a court-ordered drug test and was arrested.

Couch will now serve six years of community supervision upon his release earlier this week. he will be required to wear a GPS-enabled tracker that will monitor him for any alcohol use, which is banned. He must also remain at home between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. everyday.

Couch was also forced to attend drug rehabilitation as part of the conviction for intoxicated manslaughter.

We at The New Paltz Oracle are outraged at this gross injustice to the victims’ family. Four people lost their lives and those of their loved ones are changed forever because of Couch’s devastating decision to drink and drive. A two-year sentence and six years of probation is a small consolation in exchange for four life sentences.

Eric Boyles lost his wife Hollie and daughter Shelby, who had emerged from their home around 11 p.m. to help 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell who had just wrecked her Mercury Mountaineer into their neighbor’s culvert on her way home from a catering job. Mitchell was also killed in the crash.

After hosting a graduation for their family friend Evan Jennings, Kevin McConnell drove upon the wreck and scene of his best friend Pastor Brian Jennings’ death. His wife Shaunna Jennings came down the road moments later.

Sergio Molina was thrown from the back of Couch’s truck that night and is completely paralyzed, unable to move or speak. His mother Maria Lemus had to quit her job to take care of him full time.

Mental illness is not a get out of jail free card and affluenza is not a psychiatric diagnosis. It is a result of bad parenting for which there is no excuse. 

“Affluenza” is a term that gained popularity in the 1990s after the release of “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence,” by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors. She wrote about the condition in which children, generally from wealthy families, have a sense of entitlement, make excuses for bad behavior, and can have addictive or compulsive behaviors, including drug and alcohol problems. If Couch truly did not have the moral capacity to know that his actions were wrong, he certainly does not know it now.

Couch literally got away with murder because money prevailed over justice. The prosecution recommended 20 years in prison to atone for the lives Couch ended. District Judge Jean Boyde sentenced the teen from a dysfunctional, but wealthy, family to 10 years’ probation and intensive therapy.

In 2004, Judge Boyde sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Bradlee Miller to 20 years in prison after he was found guilty of murder and failure to stop and render aid after stealing a truck from a convenience store, intoxicated, and killing 19-year-old husband and father Philip Andress. Miller was a troubled teen whose mother was a drug addict and was being raised primarily by his grandfather.

Miller had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11, and the presumption of guilt begins at 0.08. Couch’s blood-alcohol level was 0.24, over double that of Miller’s. 

Even if Couch truly lacks the morality to diverge right from wrong as his affluenza attribution suggests, he does know that the legal age to drink is 21 and the legal limit to drive a car is a blood-alcohol level of 0.08. He also knows that taking another individual’s life is illegal.

Why then, did these two teens receive such vastly different sentences? 

Is it because Miller had to resort to a court-appointed attorney since his family couldn’t obtain the $10,000 to $15,000 to retain legal help? Or was it because the Couch family offered to pay more than $450,000 a year for their son’s rehabilitation at a privately owned facility in Orange County, California?

There is no way to truly make up for the loss of the life that was taken as a result of Miller’s devastating decision to drive drunk. Couch, however, took four lives and injured nine other individuals and received slap on the wrist from the same judge who sentenced Miller to 20 years.

Psychologist G. Dick Miller was the key witness who dubbed the teen a result of affluenza, saying he was too rich to know right from wrong. Nobody, however, said that Miller was too poor to know right from wrong.

The priorities of our current justice system are not sound if they are reactive to the perpetrators of such devastating crimes. We at The Oracle feel strongly that the punishment should fit the crime, whatever the crime, and this troubling relationship between justice and wealth must cease to exist in order to honor the laws this country seeks to uphold.