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December 29, 2015

Interesting Texas state sentencing realities surrounding the future sentencing of 'Affluenza' teen and his fugitive mother

I tend not to blog too much about sentencing stories that are already seemingly getting too much attention in the traditional media. Ergo, I have not recently posted about the fugitive status of Ethan Couch. Couch is the Texas teen who had 15-minutes of infamy in early 2014 when, after having killed four people in a drunken-driving crash, received a 10-year probation sentence from a juvenile judge who may have been influenced by a defense psychologist's statement that Couch suffered from "affluenza" as a rich kid whose parents did not set any limits on him. But now Couch has been caught while on the run in Mexico with his mother, and this new CNN article highlights some interesting sentence aspects concerning what he and his mother are facing under Texas law.

The CNN piece is headlined "'Affluenza' teen caught, but will he get off easy?", and here are excerpts that spotlight some Texas state sentencing details that strike me as now quite interesting:

Will Ethan Couch, the "affluenza" teen, get off lightly again?, Couch drew the ire of many after a judge sentenced the then 16-year-old to 10 years probation for a 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.

Those who felt the sentence too lenient felt validated when Couch violated his probation and fled. He was detained Monday in Mexico. But if you are expecting a judge to throw the book at him, be warned that the book might not be too heavy.

As of now, the most severe punishment Couch could face is 120 days in adult jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a press conference Tuesday. The district attorney explained the dilemma she faces at a news conference Tuesday:

• Ethan Couch was sentenced as a juvenile and violated his probation as ordered by juvenile court system.

• Under Texas law, Couch, now 18, would be punished for his violation in the juvenile system.

• The maximum sentence that a juvenile judge can dish out for a violation of his juvenile probation is imprisonment in a juvenile facility until Couch turns 19, which is April 11, 2016.

• The DA wants to transfer Couch's sentence to adult court. But since this violation happened in the juvenile system, Couch effectively would start with a clean slate in the adult probation system. That is, the adult court judge could not punish Couch for violations he committed as a juvenile.

• At the time a judge reassesses Couch's probation in the adult system, he has the power to put Couch in adult jail for a maximum of 120 days.

The 120 days in jail won't please those who think Couch deserves worse, but as the facts stand now, it is what the law allows. If Couch ends up on adult probation, Wilson said, and violates it as an adult, he could face up to 40 years in jail. Couch could also find himself behind bars for longer if he is found to have committed any new crimes and is charged and convicted as an adult for those crimes.

Ethan Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, and if convicted, faces between 2 and 10 years in jail, Wilson said. It's tough to explain the legal maze that stands to benefit Ethan Couch in the form of a light punishment for violating his probation.

The judge who hears the case "will throw the book at him, but the book is only a few more months because he turns 19," said Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge in Florida. "So the legal issue is: Can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time. It's a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We've already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain."...

Couch is wanted by authorities in Tarrant County, Texas, for allegedly violating his probation. His mother, Tonya, was listed by Texas authorities as a missing person after her son's disappearance, and the authorities said they believed she was assisting him.

A warrant was issued in mid-December for Couch to be taken into custody after his probation officer couldn't reach him. He appears to have dropped off the radar after a video emerged that allegedly showed him at a party where alcohol was being consumed, according to authorities. Couch had been ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his sentence probation.

His sudden disappearance reignited controversy over his case, which attracted widespread attention after a psychologist testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time of the crash, suffered from "affluenza," describing him as a rich kid whose parents didn't set limits for him. His lawyers argued that his parents should share some of the blame for the crash.

Prosecutors had requested that Couch be sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The juvenile court judge's decision to put him on probation for 10 years instead of sending him to prison outraged victims' families It also prompted many observers to question the term "affluenza," which isn't recognized as a medical condition in any formal sense. G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who said the word at the trial, later said he wished he hadn't used it.  And Couch's lawyers have criticized what they say is the news media's narrow focus on the term in relation to his case.

As some regular readers know, I have long been troubled by and long complained about what I perceive as unduly lenient sentences too often handed out for serious and repeat drunk driving offenses. For that reason (and others), this high-profile sentencing case has always annoyed me because it seemed to me it was more reflective of our society's general tendency to treat drunk driving offenders too leniently than reflective of a tendency to give special breaks to serious crimes committed by rich white kids with lenient parents (though I certainly believe the general impact and import of rich white privilege at sentencing also merits attention).

Prior related posts around Couch's initial sentencing:

December 29, 2015 at 06:18 PM | Permalink


Prof. Berman is troubled by lenient sentencing of drunk drivers causing damages. They kill as many people as murderers. They lack the mens area. I have suggested making all crime strict liability to avoid this super natural doctrine violating the Establishment Clause. It is plagiarized from the Catechism and unlawful in our secular nation. I hope he considers this suggestion.

Some murderers should go home. Some drunk drivers need LWOP. That would be true if public safety were the aim of the criminal law rather than lawyer rent seeking.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2015 10:25:24 AM

I don't understand the logic of placing someone on probation with a lengthy (more than 2-5 years) suspended sentence. If a defendant deserves a sentence of 40 years for an offense, he probably should not have been on probation in the first place.

Posted by: Bryan Gates | Dec 30, 2015 11:03:58 AM

A so called "doctor" who is allowed to give some sort of "expert" opinion in a criminal trial can be cross examined. One method is to inquire as to his knowledge of the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual 5. Numeral 5. It used to be Roman Numeral so the first four volumes were I, II, III and IV. DSM5 does not have any such catagory as affluenza. No rich brat syndrome.
There is a Randy Newman song wherein the first verse starts with: Doctor, doctor, what you say? How bout lettin me out today? Ain't no reason for me to stay. Everybody is far away. Get me back on my feet again! Back on my feet again! Open the door! Set me free! Get me back on my feeeet agaaaaain!

The singer is in a mental ward.

Posted by: Beldar From Remulak | Dec 30, 2015 12:39:05 PM

I suspect that our leniency towards DUI is related to the leniency the wealthy receive more broadly. I suspect the wealthy commit DUI just as frequently as anyone else, and the leniency towards the offense is related to a disinterest in meting out on the privileged the same brutal sentences the poor face.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, especially b/c I have not looked closely at demographics of DUI and it is an issue of special interest to you.


Posted by: John | Dec 30, 2015 1:53:41 PM

John. The wealthy are targeted for their money by the criminal cult enterprise. So the first offense generates $10,000 in income for the government. The costs go up exponentially with each violation. Most of all, they generate a lot fees for former DUI prosecutors who now serve the defense. Add another $10,000 in legal fees. You do the math. Get $20,000 for the legal profession or spend $20,000 for a year in jail.

If you stop all cars in the afternoon, 10% of drivers are legally drunk. So the blood alcohol level is not the major cause of damage. It is the personality of the driver.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2015 3:09:14 PM

It is time to prosecute text drivers. They are a threat to the lives of others.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 30, 2015 7:16:05 PM

Lib. Texting has been shown to be as impairing of driving as alcohol. It is even worse than having ADHD.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 1, 2016 10:23:46 AM

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