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December 12, 2013

Texas tough means probation for teen who killed four and injured more while drunk driving?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this CNN report headlined "Texas teen Ethan Couch gets 10 years' probation for driving drunk, killing 4." Regular readers know that drunk driving is one notable crime that I fear is consistently under-punished throughout the United States, and the details of this story confirms my fear that elitism and a variety of other potentially pernicious factors may explain why. Here are the details:

To the families of the victims, Ethan Couch was a killer on the road, a drunken teenage driver who caused a crash that left four people dead.

To the defense, the youth is himself a victim -- of "affluenza," according to one psychologist -- the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy.

To a judge, who sentenced Couch to 10 years' probation but no jail time, he's a defendant in need of treatment.

The decision disappointed prosecutors and stunned victims' family members, who say they feel that Couch got off too easy. Prosecutors had asked for the maximum of 20 years behind bars. "Let's face it. ... There needs to be some justice here," Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" on Wednesday night.

"For 25 weeks, I've been going through a healing process. And so when the verdict came out, I mean, my immediate reaction is -- I'm back to week 1. We have accomplished nothing here. My healing process is out the window," he said.

Lawyers for Couch, 16, had argued that the teen's parents should share part of the blame for the crash because they never set limits for the boy and gave him everything he wanted. According to CNN affiliate WFAA, a psychologist called by the defense described Couch as a product of "affluenza." He reportedly testified that the teen's family felt wealth bought privilege, and that Couch's life could be turned around with one to two years of treatment and no contact with his parents.

Couch was sentenced by a juvenile court judge Tuesday. If he violates the terms of his probation, he could face up to 10 years of incarceration, according to a statement from the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney's Office. Judge Jean Boyd told the court she would not release Couch to his parents, but would work to find the teen a long-term treatment facility.

"There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day," said Boyles. "The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can't buy justice in this country." His wife, Hollie Boyles, and daughter, Shelby, left their home to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down. Brian Jennings, a youth pastor, was driving past and also stopped to help.

All four were killed when the teen's pickup plowed into the pedestrians. Couch's vehicle also struck a parked car, which then slid into another vehicle driving in the opposite direction. Two people riding in the bed of the teen's pickup were tossed in the crash and severely injured. One is no longer able to move or talk because of a brain injury, while the other suffered internal injuries and broken bones.

"There is nothing the judge could have done to lessen the suffering for any of those families," said defense attorney Scott Brown, CNN affiliate KTVT reported. "(The judge) fashioned a sentence that is going to keep Ethan under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years," he said. "And if Ethan doesn't do what he's supposed to do, if he has one misstep at all, then this judge, or an adult judge when he's transferred, can then incarcerate him."

Earlier on the night of the accident, June 15, Couch and some friends had stolen beer from a local Walmart. Three hours after the crash, tests showed he had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit, according to the district attorney's office. "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but have no power under the law to change or overturn it," said Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and we regret that this outcome has added to the pain and suffering they have endured."

It is very rare, but not impossible, for prosecutors to challenge the sentence on the ground that it was too lenient, CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin said. "To give him a pass this time given the egregious nature of his conduct -- four deaths -- is just incomprehensible," she said. It is unfair that other young defendants without the same wealth could end up in jail for a lot less, said Hostin, of CNN's "New Day" morning show.

December 12, 2013 at 11:04 AM | Permalink


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I can only hope that the teen is not allowed to drive again as well but otherwise the sentence is just.

Most vehicle fatalities are the result of an impairment on the driver: drunk, drugged, sleepy, angry, texting, phoning, doing make-up and on and on. These are not criminal acts. I believe that driving drunk or otherwise cognitively impaired is morally wrong and dangerous but should not be treated as a criminal act. Insurance and tort law will do what it can to make the families of victims as whole as is practicable. The issue of driving impaired can better be handled with better driver training and licensing and re-licensing every three to five years. Offenders should be removed from driving by license revocation and seizure of vehicles driven while revoked. The best that society can and should do is remove impaired drivers and their enablers from the rode.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Dec 12, 2013 12:14:52 PM

Jardinero1 :: “but otherwise the sentence is just. ..
I believe that driving drunk or otherwise cognitively impaired .. should not be treated as a criminal act.”____

| “To the defense, the youth is himself a victim -- of "affluenza," according to one psychologist”|

Your stance breeds criminality. Call it by some other name, minimize it, re-educate it, and you will spawn it!

The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again. ” (Skinner)

Come on!

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 12, 2013 12:49:57 PM

Behind every psychologist there lies a metaphor. Behind the background of every psychologist you find a person who had trouble in math and science and wanted to be a surgeon. It is all cut and paste.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 12, 2013 1:26:02 PM

Any normal person would regard this "sentence" as a scandal and an outrage.

Why can judges get away with this stuff?

Because we don't have enough mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. Now is the time to have stronger MM's, not weaker ones.

Judges are trustworthy most of the time, but most isn't all. We need to compel them to impose some rock bottom minimum, or we'll see more and more cases just like this.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 12, 2013 1:42:18 PM

Bill Adamakis, I hope we see more cases adjudicated like this. The kid erred grievously, but grievous errors are not crimes. To be a crime requires a guilty mind. I would say the teen should spend some time in jail for stealing the beer.

Driver impairment is the leading contributor to vehicle accidents and fatalities. Making driving while impaired a crime will do nothing to stanch that. Thirty years of enhanced DUI enforcement has done little to reduce the deathrate from DUI.

Driving impairments can be handled administratively much as parking tickets are in some cities. It could go something like this. If you are stopped with a BAC above zero, then you forfeit your license for a month and the vehicle you are driving is impounded for a week. The second time you are stopped, license forfeiture for six months and vehicle impoundment for a month, the third time, two year on the license and six months on the vehicle. I would add that it shouldn't matter who owns the vehicle. Many impaired drivers are enabled by friends and family members who loan them vehicles. Removing licenses and vehicles from those who would drive impaired as well as their enablers would be a far more effective at reducing the impairment and death rate than the distant threat of a felony conviction and fines.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Dec 12, 2013 3:15:24 PM

It's not just judges, Bill, juries do the same thing in DWI death cases all the time:


Jardinero1 got close to identifying the reason. Deaths due to negligence by drunk drivers are viewed by jurors (read: "normal people") - as opposed to tuff-on-crime, convict-at-any-cost prosecutors - as more tort than crime. And indeed, this kid's parents likely face mountainous tort liability via civil suits. That's as it should be.

In this particular instance, Texas juvenile courts are civil, not criminal, and the judges' charge is to do what's in the best interest of the child. Thus, your call for mandatory minimums in this context is as misinformed as it is misguided. You simply don't understand Texas law and so have no clue what you're talking about and thus no (legitimate) basis to critique the judge's decision. Doug either, for that matter.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 12, 2013 3:23:41 PM

Affluenza? What a joke. This kid should have received some jail time. But since we are critiquing the performance of the actors in this case, Bill, do you think 20 years would have been the right sentence, which is what these prosecutors sought?

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Dec 12, 2013 3:40:01 PM

"It's not just judges, Bill, juries do the same thing in DWI death cases all the time:"

Then juries also need to be bound by mandatory minimums.

"Deaths due to negligence by drunk drivers are viewed by jurors (read: "normal people") - as opposed to tuff-on-crime, convict-at-any-cost prosecutors - as more tort than crime."

Really? Some people, like a unanimous panel of United States Circuit judges, view it not only as a crime, but as murder.


But then judges tend to see the world differently from "crime's-no-big-deal, acquit-by-witness-intimidation" defense lawyers.....Oh, wait, I'm sorry, they're just zealous advocates. For a moment there, I forgot. Darn.

"In this particular instance, Texas juvenile courts are civil, not criminal, and the judges' charge is to do what's in the best interest of the child."

What's in the best interest of this "child," not to mention the rest of us, is for him to learn now that wanton disregard of human life has serious consequences, not this joke of a "sentence" he got. If he doesn't learn it, even more serious trouble lies ahead.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 12, 2013 3:43:04 PM

Thinkaboutit --

I'd have to see the case file to know whether the prosecutors' recommendation is the one I would have made. What I do know is that wiping out four people because you're drunk as a skunk deserves some jail time (on this we agree). Since we see that judges are unable or unwilling to get there left to their own wildly varying devices, the legislature should act to force them to impose at least a rock bottom sentence that would be something other than a mockery of the four people this guy terminated.

P.S. I thought the government's initial recommendation in your case was preposterous, however. They must have been smoking some of that stuff so many people on this board want to make legal.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 12, 2013 3:56:59 PM


This is a good case for judicial review, not unreviewable mandatory minimums charging decisions.

Posted by: Babs | Dec 12, 2013 4:00:03 PM

What is the basis for outrage? I am all in favor of strict penalties for drunk driving, but it does not make a whole lot of sentence to punish mostly based on (albeit horrible) consequence. This is a sixteen-year-old young man, who made a horrible mistake with which he will have to live the rest of his life. Sending him to jail for years and years would not bringing any of the victims back, unfortunately. The deaths are, in essense, a sunk cost. The victims' families have obvioulsy suffered a terrible loss, but if it were their son, would they want his life ruined even more than it has been by some metiphysical notion of victims' rights.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 12, 2013 4:01:30 PM

Even if one accepts the "one mistake" argument, that still doesn't way in favor of no active jail time. That one mistake cost peoples' lives. I person with a temper made a mistake and angrily beat someone to death (let's say voluntary manslaughter because there was adequate provocation) and he was 16, I doubt anyone would say his one mistake should result in no jail time.

Let's keep in mind that this isn't an inchoate danger of a DUI, it was essentially a criminally negligent or reckless homicide of some sort. I'm all for taking things into account, but, at some point, you have to recognize that causing the death of someone has serious consequences (even if 20 years is inappropriate). From a utilitarian perspective, the general deterrence for DUI does need to be higher. Most people might not think through their options and probably think they're ok to drive, but there's no way they could think they were legally allowed to drive at his BAC.

For what it's worth, I don't think this is an indication of too lenient punishments for DUI (even leaving aside my caveat that this isn't just a DUI). It's rather an indication of discrepancy between privilege and unprivileged where those with resources are seen as making mistakes while others are seen as being bad people.

Posted by: Erik M | Dec 12, 2013 4:15:04 PM

On the point about discrepancy between the privilged and the unprivileged, completely agree that this a real cause for concern. But it can cut both ways. It may be that privileged defendants get more just results because they have the resources to present their cases effectively. So, the recipe for more equality may be ensuring that the less privileged get better representation and also get just outcomes, rather than imposing unjust outcomes on the privileged, just so we can say they do not do make out better than the unprivileged.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 12, 2013 4:42:19 PM

We are always pointing the finger at today's youth, how are they to respect and fear consequences when judges like this one and the judge that sentenced the rapist to 30 days seem to be more of the "problem" and not the solution to today's world. I hope the teen Collins "the escape artist" has is "get out jail free" auto driving party in the Judges neighborhood ! Now that's justice

Posted by: ChiTownJuan | Dec 12, 2013 5:55:14 PM

Babs --

So you are of the view that it is impermissible for the legislature to set ANY rock bottom minimum -- say 12 months -- for the criminal homicide of four people? That judges should have 100% discretion 100% of the time? Is that your position?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 12, 2013 6:12:37 PM


It is not impermissible. I just think it bad policy.

Posted by: Babs | Dec 12, 2013 7:56:39 PM

Mark, while I sympathize with that, I don't think the prosecution was out-lawyered in this case. I think the Judge was just naturally better able to empathize with the defendant here compared with another defendant who had committed the same crime.

I think many minimum mandatory laws are draconian because of both their severity and inflexibility. However, that doesn't mean that no mandatory minimum can ever be appropriate. This was a homicide after all.

Posted by: Erik M | Dec 12, 2013 8:35:46 PM

"judges should have 100% discretion 100% of the time? Is that your position?" Don't forget about juries, Bill. Juries reflect the mores of the community far better than the legislature or the judge and certainly better than the police and prosecutors.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Dec 12, 2013 9:27:52 PM

Leave it to Grits to look down his nose at the rest of us who recoil at this lenient sentence.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 12, 2013 9:58:21 PM

Jardinero1 --

In federal court, the sentence is imposed by the judge.

In federal jurisdiction, then, let me ask you the question I asked Babs: Do you think judges should have 100% discretion 100% of the time?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 13, 2013 9:46:37 AM

"Lawyers for Couch, 16, had argued that the teen's parents ... never set limits for the boy and gave him everything he wanted. ... [A] psychologist called by the defense described Couch as a product of "affluenza." He reportedly testified that the teen's family felt wealth bought privilege, and that Couch's life could be turned around with one to two years of treatment and no contact with his parents."

So how exactly does the apparent crediting of this testimony by the court not reinforce exactly what the good dr. was talking about. Given that the court was - noted in a post above - obligated to sentence according to the best interests of the minor, how exactly does more of the same help? Is the argument that, at least this time, there was A CONSEQUENCE for misbehavior? The consequence being that his money train was removed. Wow! What does that say about society where our graduated penalty for killing 4 people is only relative to your level of privilege.

What all this does not seem to recognize that this "penalty" will be carried with Couch for the remainder of his life. Even if you buy the argument - I don't - that he was 16, rich, and coddled, when he is 25 he will remember that he got a slap on the wrist. That may end up being the most damaging thing the court could ever do for his well being. Time will tell what is in store for Mr. Couch, but I question whether this court has assisted in his development at all, much less held him accountable for his conduct.

Posted by: David | Dec 13, 2013 9:47:17 AM

federalist --

Grits looks down his nose at anyone who is not Grits or Che Guevara. He actually goes out of his way to be arrogant and unpleasant. But, on the other hand, he doesn't have to go far.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 13, 2013 9:50:06 AM

Bill, I think in cases where a judge may reduce a penalty, yes; where he may increase a penalty, no.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Dec 13, 2013 1:06:54 PM

BTW, this is worth considering. I think points 3 and 4 are quite good even if I don't agree entirely with it: http://ethicsalarms.com/2013/12/12/ethics-observations-on-the-affluenza-sentence-and-none-of-them-involve-criticizing-the-judge/

Posted by: Erik M | Dec 14, 2013 1:50:46 PM

Babs --

Why is it bad policy for Congress to set the outer limits of sentencing? I would think it bad policy for it to do anything OTHER than set such limits. Otherwise, only the judiciary could decide whether (a) you can get ten years for a single, minor theft, or (b) thirty days for child rape (which actually happened recently in Minnesota, on the theory that the child (aged 14) "looked older than her age").

The legislature can't rein that in? Really?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 16, 2013 10:57:08 AM

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