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December 17, 2013
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Hall of law shame: Affluenza Defense

Weirder stuff has happened. But not much.

There was the Scopes matter (known to history as the Scopes Monkey Trial) where, in 1925, the state of Tennessee prosecuted high school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution (although it is unclear whether Scopes actually ever taught the subject). If you know your history, a couple of rather famous characters were involved: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant argued for the prosecution while Clarence Darrow trumpeted the defense.

Then, of course, there was the Dred Scott embarrassment where, in 1857, the United States Supreme Court, flouting the Constitution, declared that all blacks — slaves as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country’s territories.

More recently, there was the 2010 disaster known as Citizens United, about which I have written before, where the Supreme Court in its wisdom held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions. In short, the decision allowed “legal” but not corporeal beings to flood political campaigns with limitless funds.

Next in the pantheon of legal disasters — although blissfully limited to a single decision in our neighbor state of Wyoming — a high school teacher was sentenced to a mere 30 days in jail for raping one of his 14-year-old students (who later committed suicide) on the grounds that the girl had acted provocatively and was accordingly, despite her age, in pari delicto.

Now, let’s add the great state of Texas to this hall of shame.

The story goes like this

On Father’s Day this year, a 16-year-old punk from a wealthy Tarrant County family and his pals stole a couple of cases of beer from (however declasse) a Walmart. After quaffing an impressive quantity, he jumped into his Ford F-150 pickup with seven passengers along for the ride. With a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit for an adult (and traces of Valium in his system), the punk raced the pickup at 70 mph — twice the legal speed — and, in quick order, slammed into four people standing near a disabled car, killing all four: a 52-year-old mother and her 21-year-old daughter, a 24-year-old woman and a 43-year-old youth minister and father of three. Three of the four killed were good Samaritans who had stopped to help the 24-year-old woman change a flat.

Two of the punk’s, Ethan Couch’s, passengers were ejected, one of whom was paralyzed and cannot speak. Five others were injured.

Couch admitted to driving drunk.

Texas sentencing guidelines for crimes like this call for fines of up to $10,000 and between two and 20 years in the state penitentiary.

But wait …

You see it wasn’t Couch’s fault. As a spoiled rich kid, he wasn’t responsible for his actions. That’s what the defense claimed and, amazingly, that’s what State District Judge Jean Boyd bought.

Because he was a spoiled brat, Couch was never taught right from wrong. Consequences were never imposed on him. How could he possibly know the difference? He was suffering from — I kid you not – “affluenza”, the affliction of coming from a wealthy family.

Despite the fact that “affluenza” is unknown in the Bible of psychiatric illnesses, published by the American Psychiatric Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or any other journal that doesn’t feature eye of newt in its concoctions, psychologist Gary Miller — presumably with a straight face — testified that poor Ethan should be pitied rather than scorned, that his parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have” and raised him in an environment of privilege that afforded him no understanding of actions and their consequences. Miller said, too, that, “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone you sent him money.”

Mom and Dad’s fault

Ergo sum, it was Mom and Dad’s fault, and poor Ethan could not — and should not — be held accountable or, God forbid, punished!

Um … yeah.

What about the poor and disadvantaged? What about children of abuse? If they liquor up, take a 3-ton weapon, kill four innocents on the roadside and cripple a couple more, do you think that they’d skate too? If you think for a minute that money — not the disadvantage of having it — didn’t influence the outcome, then I have some swampland that I’m selling at a premium.

So instead of hard time in the pokey, here’s what Couch got; no jail time whatsoever, 10 years of probation, a fine that Daddy’s paying and long-term alcohol rehab that, um … Daddy’s paying nearly half-a-mill for in … eh-em … swanky Newport Beach, Calif.

The lady with the scales of justice — Themis — is at the least, weeping. Or, more likely, she is hiding her head beneath her be-robed sleeves in utter shame.

The law is often elegant and beautiful. Most times, it at least does justice. Sometimes, however, the wheels fall off. It is hard, if not impossible, to see how this travesty is anything less than an utter and confounding miscarriage of the law and a darkening of the sacred precept of “equal justice before the law.”

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO TV 18 as host of “Community Focus”. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or by email at robbins@slblaw.com or robbins@colorado.net.


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 17, 2013 07:32PM Published Dec 17, 2013 10:12AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.