We all remember the numerous news reports in December 2013, that a Texas judge sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to ten years probation and a residential treatment program in California, after killing four people and severely injuring two others in a drunk driving accident. He was driving 70mph in a 40mph zone when the accident occurred. His blood-alcohol content was measured at .24 and he tested positive for valium. He faced a maximum of 20 years in jail with parole possible in just two years.
The judge sentenced Couch after hearing testimony from the defense psychologist Gary Miller, who argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” meaning the youth was not taught about consequences for bad behavior because his parents were so wealthy and did not set limits on him. Defense attorneys argued that the parents should share in the blame and stated the boy would greatly benefit from being away from his parents in an out-of-state treatment program.
In response to this case, State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, from Los Angeles, introduced a bill in January 2014, to try to prevent the afflueza defense in drunk driving cases in California. The bill, AB1508, states, “…when determining the punishment to be imposed in all misdemeanor and infraction cases, or when determining the term to be imposed when a statute specifies 3 possible terms of imprisonment, the fact that a defendant did not understand the consequences of his or her actions because he or she was raised in an affluent or overly permissive household shall not be considered a circumstance in mitigation of the crime.”
Although the word affluenza may not have been used in California DUI cases before, I think everyone can agree that judges hand down sentences on all types of criminal cases, including drunk driving matters, based on a lot of factors. Factors such as prior DUI’s, the severity of the crime, the blood-alcohol content at the time of the incident, the injuries/deaths involved, along with the defendant’s background, the possibility of reoffending, punishment, and protecting the community. Without using the word affluenza, which I believe is what is really upsetting people in this case, the plea negotiations and the sentencing should include all of these relevant factors.
In the Couch case, the minor is going to be under the jurisdiction of the court for at least 10 years. Within that time, I hope he learns that there are consequences to his actions regardless of this parents’ wealth and their apparent inability to teach him how to manage himself in a manner that is lawful and safe.
Having said that, it is my opinion that Assemblyman Gatto’s legislation should be struck down.