“Affluenza” Defense Misses the Real Story


The US news media coined a new term last week. “Affluenza” – a legal defense that claims responsibility for a crime is waived when a child is so spoiled by being rich they don’t deserve the normal penalty. But they got the story wrong.

The Star-Telegram broke the story, but it was picked up across the nation. Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old in Texas, received only probation after being found guilty in the automobile accident deaths of four people. Ethan was driving his pickup truck with seven passengers when he slammed into another vehicle that was parked on the side of the expressway. Along with the car’s owner, three others who were there helping with the breakdown were also killed. Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter – the teen had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit as well as traces of Valium in his system.

Prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence, the judge handed down 10 years of probation, including a stint in a rehab facility. The defense claimed it was Ethan’s lack of discipline and wealthy lifestyle that led him down the path which eventually ended up killing four people. Hence, the play on the word ‘affluent’, giving us affluenza as the defense.

What the reports should have emphasized is a culture that allows a 16-year-old to access alcohol and sedatives, often a deadly combination. With seven other teens in the truck, this was a rolling party in progress – featuring binge drinking.

A psychiatrist at the trial blamed the parents for a child that essentially raised himself and was largely disconnected with reality. This might be so, but it isn’t uncommon for even a 16-year-old to be drunk.

According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 25 percent of his peers have abused alcohol in the past month, with about half of those binge drinking episodes. That’s the real story here, not that a young man got drunk and crashed his truck, as tragic as that outcome is, but that one-quarter of his peers are at risk for doing the same thing. And these findings cut across financial strata. If there’s any difference between Ethan Couch and others of his age, it’s that most probably can’t afford a nice pickup truck. But make no mistake; alcohol abuse is quite common in the mid-teen years. That’s the real headline here – how we are failing our youth.

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