Opinion: Affluenza: The Real Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

On June 15, 2013, Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old boy living in Burleson, Texas, was home alone and free to do what he pleased, just like almost every other night of his life. After Couch’s wealthy father divorced his mother, he gifted his son with a 4,000 sq. foot mansion property all to himself. He also entrusted to Ethan a red 2012 Ford F-350 pickup truck, owned by the father’s company, Cleburne Sheet Metal.

Couch took great advantage of these amenities, often hosting parties in the absence of parental supervision. June 15th wasn’t any different. After drinking, he took out the pickup truck for a joyride with seven of his friends, five in the backseat and two in the truck bed. Driving down the residential road, he accelerated to 70 mph. He didn’t see the 2000 Mercury Mountaineer vehicle parked on the side of the road. He didn’t see the four other people who surround the car, helping the driver with the flat tire. Maybe he didn’t mean to hit them; maybe he tried to swerve away, but at the end of the night, those four people were dead and his two friends in the bed of the truck were severely injured, one paralyzed and the other with numerous broken bones and internal injuries.

So began the trial of Ethan Couch. He blew a .24g/dL blood-alcohol content after the accident, which is three times the legal limit in Texas. He also had traces of Valium in his system. In addition, he plead guilty to 4 cases of intoxication manslaughter and two cases of intoxication assault. In regards to the manslaughter charges, prosecutors asked for a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. In regards to the intoxication assault charges, Texas Juvenile law has a maximum sentence of three years in a Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility. However, things did not go as expected for the prosecution or for the families who lost their loved ones at the hands of Ethan Couch.

During his trial, Couch’s defense lawyer argued that Couch suffered from an affliction called “affluenza.” The idea behind affluenza is that, because Couch was raised in an environment of wealth, comfort and privilege without regulations from his parents, he had no understanding of the consequences his actions could have, and therefore should be treated, not punished.

Psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller testified that Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have." However, when the term affluenza was popularized in 1997 through a PBS special, it was defined as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It was meant to describe a social condition of our consumerist times, not a psychiatric disorder that afflicts the rich. The American Psychiatric Association does not even acknowledge the term “affluenza” as a real condition. Yet because of his “ailment,” Ethan Couch was only sentenced to 10 years probation and a year of in-patient care at a rehabilitation facility in Newport Beach, California, costing $450,000 a year and funded by his parents.

The Couch family recently agreed to pay an undisclosed settlement with the four families of the people killed that night. There’s something fundamentally wrong with the fact that the Couches can simply pay off the families without further repercussions. What lessons is Ethan learning from the large sum of cash his family doled out? He’s learning that you can buy yourself out of punishment.

Ethan Couch violated Texas state law, killed four people, injured nine total, two of whom suffered severe wounds, yet he will not spend any time in jail. This is a clear representation of what is wrong with the American judicial system and American society as a whole. We believe so whole-heartedly in the American Dream, yet that idea has become tainted more and more as people strive for wealth purely as a display, rather than as something they can use to impact people and do good for society. Every-day life has become about consumerism and materialism without much concern for consequences. People wrack up debts on credit cards, spending money that they know they don’t have in order to purchase the car or the purse that will convey to the rest of the world “they’ve made it.”

This attitude can’t help but cycle forward, and the rich get richer and richer while the middle class try harder and harder to gain entry into an elite class which they will never truly belong to. Nor should they want to, because the excesses of the top 1% rarely ever translate into the qualities of happiness, altruism, integrity and modesty that should be desired over any type of elevated status.

I think most people are enraged at the Ethan Couch decision. Equality under our laws means that his wealth shouldn’t excuse him from responsibility, and his youth shouldn’t excuse him from consequences. Perhaps he really didn’t understand how dangerous his actions were, but sending him to a cushy rehab facility in California certainly won’t teach him any lessons, not to mention bring closure to the four families that lost their sons and daughters. Being born an American today with all the rights and opportunities that we are afforded is a privilege that most of the world is denied. With that privilege comes responsibilities, and people look to us for leadership.

Unfortunately, our leadership has faltered with this decision that sets a precedent based on inequality. No matter class, race, gender, or any other distinguisher, people are people, and should be afforded the same rights and consequences in all scenarios. I think that instead of just being enraged about the Couch decision, we should each look at our own lives and examine what we are doing to propagate the materialist mentality that has come to this decision. This is of course an extreme case, but when our values are aligned with wealth rather than strength of character and virtue, cases like Couch’s could become even more frequent. Money can’t bring back the people who died because of Ethan’s recklessness, and it certainly should never be able to buy him or anyone else exemption from the consequences of his actions.

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Jacqueline Carney