Ethan Couch’s parents were ordered to pay for just a fraction of the entire tuition of his stay at a luxurious rehabilitation center.
Charter Oak High School

Consequences for lack of consequence

On June 15, 2013, Ethan Couch, at age 16, stole beer from a store and sped down a road at 70 miles per hour. His pickup truck plowed into four pedestrians, killing them, and hit two other vehicles. One of his passengers was left paralyzed with brain damage. Couch’s blood alcohol level tested at 0.24 percent, and he pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter. Couch’s defense was that he had affluenza, “a condition fostered by wealthy and permissive parents who encourage their children to believe normal rules do not apply to the affluent,” described his psychologist Dick Miller.

Affluenza is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and, therefore, has no legal standing. However, District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to 10 years of probation. When prosecutors investigated whether or not Ethan Couch violated his probation, Couch and his mother, Tonya Couch, fled Texas in November. They were later arrested in Puerto Vallarta. Mrs. Couch was returned to the United States after being deported from Mexico. She faces a charge of hindering apprehension. Her son remained in Guadalajara and was granted a delay in deportation.

“Had justice been served two years ago, we would have never had to go through this,” Sheriff Anderson told CNN. Judge Boyd also allowed Couch to live in a “private rehabilitation home” that cost $715 a day, which was paid for by his parents. “What is the judge’s take-home message to him? The message is that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences,” said Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist.

Critics have pointed out that District Judge Jean Boyd gave a harsher sentence to another intoxicated driver years earlier. Eric Bradlee Miller, who fatally struck a civilian, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “There’s always been an issue in the court system here. If you got money, you got freedom,” Miller’s grandfather told the Daily News.

“Let’s look at a mirror situation: poor teens whose parents did not properly discipline their children because the parents were working two jobs to put food on the table,” said Rosenberg. “These children may have gotten away with socially unacceptable or even unlawful behavior in the past and not suffered any negative consequences. But would their defense team successfully argue that these youths were less responsible than others?”

–Agnes Tran