Spare us the “affluenza” defense this time: Ethan Couch faces real prison time for violating parole

The drunk-driving rich kid got probation instead after he killed 4 and injured 2 — and now he's in the wind

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 16, 2015 4:37PM (EST)


Have you seen Ethan Couch lately? Maybe careening past you on the road at a high speed? On Tuesday, the Dallas Morning News reported that a warrant has been issued for the teen who two years ago was spared prison and given instead ten years probation after a fatal car accident. The reason the authorities are looking for him? Oops, violating his parole.

Couch became the poster boy for 99 percenter rage in 2013, after he struck and killed four people and seriously injured two others — one of whom suffered serious brain damage that left him, according to prosecutors at the time, no longer able to move or talk —  while driving at three times over the legal limit for alcohol. He also tested positive for valium in his system. Couch was 16 at the time.

Prosecutors had asked that the teen — who was described as "belligerent and uncooperative" at the scene of the accident — be sentenced to 20 years in prison for the incident. But his defense team argued that he'd been the victim of "affluenza, where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences." A psychiatrist said the boy's well-to-do family had given him "freedoms no young person should have," including letting him drive from the age of 13 and not punishing him for an earlier incident in which he was found in his parked pickup with an undressed, passed out 14 year-old girl. Prosecutors said at the time "they had never heard of a case where the defense tried to blame a young man’s conduct on the parents’ wealth."

Yet the defense tactic worked, and instead of prison, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Couch to ten years probation and rehab. Last year, CBS News in Dallas reported that Couch had completed a stint in Texas State Hospital in Vernon and was reportedly heading to another facility in Amarillo.

But earlier this month, local authorities said they were investigating a short video posted on Twitter that appeared to show Couch at a party involving alcohol. And now he appears to have gone AWOL, with his probation officer confirming the now 18 year-old missed a recent appointment.

His attorneys told CBS11 Tuesday, "We have recently learned that, for the last several days, the juvenile probation officer has been unable to make contact with Ethan or his mother with whom he has been residing. It’s our understanding that the court has issued a directive to apprehend to have Ethan detained because he is out of contact with his probation officer." And now that a warrant for his arrest has been issued, Couch faces up to ten years in prison — real prison this time — for violation of parole.

Is it possible that Couch has a severe substance abuse problem that keeps putting him in situations that are gravely dangerous to himself and others? Based on the facts thus far, it's a fair assumption. But you can need help and punishment at the same time, and he seems to thus far have received not nearly enough of either. And it's been two years, almost to the day, since assistant district attorney Richard Alpert warned, "There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here." Now, alarmingly, it's just a question of how much more damage he can inflict before he gets there.

'Affluenza Teen' Ethan Couch Missing, Says Probation Officer

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Affluenza Aol_on Drunk Driving Ethan Couch