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Ethan Couch's Juvenile "Affluenza" Continues to Plague the Justice System

[DIGEST: CNNNew York TimesCBSABC News, Chicago Tribune]

Ethan Couch’s fight against deportation is over, and he is officially heading back to the United States, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration. Couch is currently en route to Dallas, having departed Mexico City Thursday morning. His return comes more swiftly than was previously expected. Immigration officials in Jalisco once estimated that it could take another month before the extradition process could be completed. The story is far from over, however. According to Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, the most severe punishment he could face would be a mere 120 days in jail.


Credit: Source.

The teen, who sparked an international manhunt after violating his probation, would have faded from the public consciousness had he not successfully evaded a prison sentence with the now notorious affluenza defense, which claimed he was “too rich and spoiled to take responsibility” for a drunken driving crash that left four people dead. The outcome of the case sparked national outrage; even now, a quick search of his name on Twitter yields thousands of angry responses and calls for heavier sentencing from around the country. He did, after all, walk away with only ten years of probation.

But the saga of Ethan Couch's chaotic life (and the nature of the affluenza defense itself) may have started long before that fateful crash. Even the cushion of his family's wealth could not protect him from the fallout from his parents' divorce in 2006, after which Fred and Tonya Couch were ordered to undergo psychological evaluation. These evaluations are a window into a troubled home life: Fred Couch once informed a social worker that his wife was addicted to Vicodin and that she gave the painkiller to their son several times; his wife claimed that Fred often called her names and that he physically abused her, at one point throwing her into a fireplace. A social worker came to the conclusion that both mother and father had “adultified” young Ethan, who found himself involved in adult matters from the age of 9.

Credit: Source.

But if Ethan Couch had to learn to accept responsibilities at an early age, there is little indication of this when one examines the heavy consequences of his choices. Ethan and his mother Tonya were captured in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta on December 28. Their respective arrests followed a string of remarkably conspicuous behavior, including

failure to pay the tab at a strip club and placing a Domino's pizza order, which ultimately led the police to them. This is audacious behavior, but so was the affluenza defense, which has been widely criticized for enabling the teen; Couch not only violated his probation, but also attempted to delay his deportation. The psychologist who coined the affluenza diagnosis later said that he regretted using the term and has expressed his disapproval for the way the media has latched onto it.

Psychologist Dick Miller. Credit: Source.

American lawyers have “never been accused of lacking creativity in seeking to justify the nefarious deeds of their clients,” says Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst and a former New York homicide prosecutor, and Scott Brown, the Texas defense attorney who defended Ethan Couch, has “raised the bar to a new level” in not only asserting Ethan Couch's controversial affluenza defense, but actually succeeding at obtaining leniency. But the maximum legal sentence for violating probation is 120 days, even if prison time might be just what Ethan Couch's affluenza needs.

The slap on the wrist boils down to a simple technicality: Because Couch was sentenced as a juvenile, he violated his probation as ordered by the juvenile court system.

Couch is now 18, but would be punished for his violation within the juvenile court system. A maximum sentence for those who violate their juvenile probation would entail detention in a juvenile facility. Couch, if imprisoned, is subject to these regulations and would stay in a juvenile facility only until his 19th birthday, on April 11, 2016. A hearing on whether to turn his case over to the adult system will be held on February 19. Says Samantha Jordan, assistant to the district attorney in Tarrant County, “It's not a foregone conclusion that this will happen, but we certainly hope it does.

If Couch is transferred into the adult system, he would start with a clean slate, because judges cannot punish anyone for violations committed as a juvenile. The judge will only have the power to sentence him to the maximum 120 days in an adult jail once the probation violation is assessed.

Tougher sentencing might be possible if Couch commits violations while under adult probation; according to Sharen Wilson, he could face up to 40 years of jail time. He could also find himself serving a longer sentence should the courts find that he 

committed new crimes for which he is convicted as an adult. Charges for the teen are still pending, but his mother could serve between 2 and 10 years in prison for hindering the apprehension of a juvenile.

Credit: Source.

If it seems as if the affluenza defense made a mockery of the courts, the double jeopardy doctrine, which prevents anyone from being tried twice for the same crime, could sound the death knell for those who want to see Ethan Couch behind bars. Should the prosecutor request the case be moved to adult court in a bid for adult sanctions, the Couches are likely to mount a double jeopardy defense. Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge, is not optimistic. “We've already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain.”

The disappearance of Ethan Couch picked at the open wounds of the family members of his victims, who protested the ruling of Judge Jean Hudson Boyd, who sentenced Couch to only ten years of probation. Judge Boyd has also been accused of letting Couch get off lightly because of his background; critics cite a case she presided over in 2004, which ended in a conviction on drunken driving charges for a young man from a poor home with a drug-addicted mother.

But the curious case of Ethan Couch raises many questions about the effectiveness of our justice system: If money could buy a bogus diagnosis, as well as time to make a case against his own deportation, what other twists and turns should we expect before this case is ultimately resolved?