Sunday, December 15, 2013

Affluenza: Worst. Argument. Ever.

I've been practicing law for quite a few years now and I've seen a whole host of cases ranging from civil litigation to criminal trials. I've been in federal court, state court, county court and even your local city night court.  Throughout all of that, I've observed that one general principle in the law tends to prevail in most cases: whoever has the most money wins.  Now, of course, there are exceptions to this rule and when we see the little guy win in court over the big money corporation it makes us all warm and fuzzy on the inside and, for a moment, we are reminded that every now and again justice prevails in this country.  But make no mistakes about it, for every one warm-and-fuzzy case out there, there are about 100 that you don't hear about where the party with the deepest pockets steam rolls the little guy into submission.  So I'm no stranger to the concept that money talks and "you-know-what" walks when it comes to legal representation. Wealthy individuals or corporations can afford to hire the top-notch legal representation of powerful law firms full of the most highly educated Ivy League law school graduates who will spend 24 hours a day combing over documents, interviewing witnesses, hiring experts, and finding the proverbial needle in the haystack to ensure that they win the case.  Meanwhile, if you don't have money then you take your chances with either the public defender in the criminal context or the small mom and pop law firm or solo practitioner in the civil context (or worse yet, you represent yourself!).   So trust me when I say that I fully understand how money has influence in our judicial system.  That said, the following case takes this rule to a whole new level:

Per LA Times:

It’s hard to hear the details of Ethan Couch’s crimes without flinching.
Last June, the 16-year-old Texan plowed his father's pickup truck into a group of Good Samaritans helping a disabled vehicle on a narrow residential street in a Ft. Worth suburb. He killed four, including a mother and daughter, and permanently maimed two of his seven teenage passengers, one of whom landed on his head, and is permanently paralyzed.
But it’s even more painful to hear about the punishment handed down Thursday by Texas State District Judge Jean Boyd, who sentenced Couch to 10 years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter, according to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.
Prosecutors, the paper said, had asked the judge to send Couch to a lock-up facility for 20 years.
Instead of incarceration, Couch will be allowed to receive therapy at a California residential rehabilitation program, which his divorced parents will pay for, at an estimated cost of about $450,000.
It’s not clear exactly what persuaded the judge to throw her common sense out the window, but many have speculated that she bought the baloney peddled by defense psychologist G. Dick Miller, who explained that Couch would be ill-served by a prison term, as he suffers from a condition called “affluenza.”
Judge Jean Boyd
“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” the Star-Telegram quoted Miller as saying. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”
Affluenza, Miller acknowledged to CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, is “not a medical term.” The psychologist said that it means “You have too much and you don’t know how to distribute it.”
At Cooper’s prompting, Miller acknowledged that the boy was “a spoiled brat.”
The affluenza claim rightfully strikes the most absurd note since Dan White’s infamous 1979 “Twinkie defense.” Psychologists have loosely used the term for years to describe the emotional pitfalls unique to children raised in affluent settings.
In this case, it's being used tautologically, and non-sensically: A rich kid whose divorced, dysfunctional parents set no rules and imposed no consequences will not strictly be held accountable for taking four lives and ruining two others because his rich, divorced, dysfunctional parents set no rules and imposed no consequences.
First of all, this kid single-handedly killed as many Americans as Benghazi.  If we can talk about that for a year, we can at least take 15 minutes and shine a spot light on the utter absurdity of this case. 

Second, as the article notes, medically speaking there is no such thing as "affluenza."  It's a made up term used to describe what most of us would call being a "spoiled brat." The Judge in this case should have moved to strike the entire testimony of the defense's so-called "expert" psychologist.  Moreover, that fact that she not only allowed that testimony but went even further and apparently believed it is beyond all of my legal comprehension.  A friend of mine just asked me to explain how the Judge arrived at her conclusion legally.  My answer: I can't.  I've heard some pretty bad legal arguments in my day, but this one just might win the prize.  I understand that this is a juvenile case and that juvenile courts tend to want to take it easy on kids because kids are expected to do dumb stuff, but there are 4 dead people here and 1 paralyzed child as a result of Ethan Couch's actions.  Given those facts, the law requires that Ethan Couch go to jail.  Period.

Third, if a 16 year-old poor minority kid from the inner city grew up with divorced parents who never taught him that there are consequences for his actions, and that kid got drunk and drove his car into 4 people and killed them, would we even be having this discussion?  And if you have to answer "no" to that question, then you have to concede that the law was not equally applied by the judge in this case. 

Let us hear your thoughts on this case in the comments below. 
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