Jeff Farrell: ‘Affluenza’ defense more likely to fail than succeed

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 11:58 PM

The sad case in Texas of a teenager who took four lives while driving drunk is shining a light on “affluenza,” a concept that doesn’t seem to have much scientific support but is now, at least briefly, in the public eye.

According to experts called in the case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, it describes a condition of having rich, socially elite parents who didn’t set limits for him.

Couch killed a motorist whose car had a flat tire and three people who had stopped to help her, according to reports on the case. His blood alcohol level was .24, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas.

Because of his age, Couch might not have been facing much real prison time to begin with. His case was heard in juvenile court. He could have faced a sentence of up 20 years, but also could have been eligible for release after a short time, according to some reports.

But people are understandably outraged that, after he pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter, a judge gave him a 10-year sentence to be served on probation.

Adding to their outrage is the fact that Couch’s defense team called experts to argue that he shouldn’t be held accountable due to affluenza.

The term has appeared in a number of books on the ills of rampant consumerism, but it isn’t a widely accepted diagnosis. It doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the standard most mental health professionals use in the U.S.

It essentially amounts to arguing that a child shouldn’t face punishment for criminal actions because the his parents spoiled him.

I don’t know all the factors the judge considered when she made her decision, because I don’t know how courts in Texas would generally handle a case like this. It’s possible she gave that argument as little weight as it appears to deserve from the outside. Or that the defense made a more nuanced argument than we heard as the case became national news this week.

But I’ve seen enough of the coverage, and the response, to understand why people are outraged that Couch got no real punishment from the court after his defense attorneys say he’s never been properly disciplined, and that the judge should consider that a mitigating factor when deciding how to punish him now.

I don’t think it’s going to become a commonly used defense in courtrooms across the nation — it seems more likely to backfire than to help, especially if prosecutors drive home that it’s not actually a widely held theory in the mental health community.

This case will certainly make “affluenza” a pop culture phenomenon, at least for a few months. It will almost certainly show up on they type of courtroom and police procedurals that like to take on current headlines, and that alone could keep it in the minds of a lot of people for a long time to come.

Even working as a journalist, I can’t always account for which local stories from any community become regional or even national news. Certainly in this case there was a novel argument made by the defense, and it was guaranteed to generate outrage from most of the people who saw it.

It will become another anecdote in the argument that the rich, famous or influential get different treatment in the legal system from the rest of us. In fact, it’s making the argument they should get different treatment because somehow they have a different concept of right and wrong from the rest of society.

That’s not real psychiatry or psychology. Hopefully judges and juries will quickly see through that line of reasoning.

For now, this case is just another that makes it seem like the real affluenza is a disorder affecting our legal system, where the rich are often seen as facing a different standard from the rest of us, and that’s the real source of outrage.

Hopefully, the argument itself will prove a weak bow in the quiver of the rich and powerful.