Vail Daily column: An affluenza defense?
OK, admittedly, I don’t know all the details. Nonetheless, what follows has my undies in a bunch. In part, because this sort of silliness — sort of like the O.J. acquittal oh, those many years ago — besmirches the law and diminishes Lady Justice in the public esteem.
In order to earn the respect the law is due, it must be impartial, blind and even-handed. Yes, yes, a good attorney can work wonders. But the law must not be perverted. Donald Trump must be afforded the same law as Donald Duck (forgiving of course the literary license that at least one of the Donalds is anthropomorphic; I’ll leave it to you to determine, in your own estimation, which one).
That said, the story goes like this:
A Texan teen, one Ethan Couch, was afflicted with a terrible disease — the disease of affluence, wealth, opportunity and privilege. Poor kid. He had a bad case of it; great home, great car, his every whim indulged. It seems a couple of years ago, Couch, who was living in his own mansion, as his parents had stepped up to an even better mansion, went on a bender, then decided prudence dictated that he drive his rather fancy, rather large pickup truck and drive it fast. The then-16-year-old’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Even in Texas, 16 is just a mite young to drink. And drive under the influence.
As was probably predictable to anyone not suffering from Couch’s grave affliction, speeding in a residential neighborhood — even when as sober as a judge — is not a good idea. Add the jet fuel of too much ethanol and too much hubris, and the outcome was predictable. Couch lost control of his vehicle, hit and killed four innocents, left one of his passengers permanently brain damaged, injured others and then fled the scene to sleep it off.
Warped by privilege
His trial was a sensation. His lawyers — presuming you want to call them that — came up with daring defense that Couch was so spoiled rotten, he could not discern right from wrong. Accordingly, the argument went, since he could not tell right from wrong, how could the poor indulged waif be held accountable? He, in the lexicon of the law, lacked a culpable mens rea or guilty mind.
This unique defense was dubbed by the media as the affluenza defense; the poor soul was warped by too much of too much.
Um … OK?
The problem is, the court bought it. In the hook, line and sinker way. Although Couch took four lives and ruined another, he was so privileged that, well … he was given special privileges. If this seems a little circular, well, I’m on board. In this alternate universe, rather than facing 20 years behind bars to adjust to the lack of creature comforts, Couch was given therapy and 10 years on probation. As you might have guessed, the therapeutic setting Couch was sentenced to was sort of posh. Palm trees, susurrating trade winds. Everything, I presume, it being a place where Couch was sent to dry out, but mai tais.
Once Couch had himself straight, there were a few things he had to do, primarily to keep himself out of trouble. He had to keep away from drugs and alcohol. Although alcohol was the primary culprit on that fatal night, along with his poor judgment, drugs were not a stranger to young Mr. Couch.
But, oops, apparently affluenza can relapse. Especially when the rules of life and the rules of law stick to you like Teflon.
Recently, a little Twitter clip surfaced. Among the featured cast of clowns was Ethan Couch in pari dilecto with a fair quantum of booze. In fact, the video showed, he was a central character in a Dionysean bash.
When the clip went viral, Couch bugged out. He failed to respond to his probation officer. And his mom, instead of tweaking his ear and marching him into the nearest probation office, apparently gathered up his passport and hers, threw the two of them a farewell party, and high-tailed it off to Mexico to make like banditos in swanky Puerto Vallarta.
After a couple of weeks on the lam, Couch — his formerly blonde hair dyed a mousey brown — and his mom were apprehended. At this writing, the details of their extradition back to the good ol’ US of A were being hammered out. Once they dust the sand off, Couch, now 18, will be forced to make a beeline to juvenile court and his mom will be arrested.
‘Ain’t no cure’
When this all shakes out, Couch could well — and at last — be fitted for an orange prison jump suit. That is, if the court determines this time, that there ain’t no cure for affluenza.
As you may have guessed, this sort of thing makes me bristle. The law has been my professional life for more than 30 years. And when it’s mocked by jesters in pin striped suits, it tends to set my blood a’boil.
Justice is sacred. It is the bedrock of a civil society. It should be dished out earnestly and fairly. For one and for all. Even Ethan Couch.
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, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.