‘Affluenza:’ The Latest Criminal Defense for the Spoiled Rich

The latest criminal defense for the spoiled rich.

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There's a tired and persistent canard that criminals end up going without punishment for their violations because they convince lawyers and judges that they were so victimized as children by poverty or abuse that they can't possibly be held accountable for their own behavior. This is hardly the case; in fact, the opposite is true. Indigent defendants have little recourse if they are assigned substandard public representation, and juries hardly identify with a poor kid or a black kid thought to be up to no good. That was represented pretty clearly in the acquittal of George Zimmerman ("George," one juror referred to the defendant after that trial, as though he were a pal and neighbor). Zimmerman had shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, but the jury appeared to identify with the shooter more.

And one look at the appalling result of mandatory-minimum laws shows that drug offenders, in particular, are being subject to absurdly long prison sentences. A first-time offender found with 5 grams of crack can be subject to a minimum five-year sentence; add on some trumped up "conspiracy" as part of the continuum of drug sales, and the incarceration could jump to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. Jack Carpenter sold medical marijuana to dispensaries in California (where it is legal), but was still sentenced to 10 years behind bars by a federal judge.

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Forget about avoiding prison because you had it tough as a kid. And don't even try the "Twinkie defense," the contention that you were so amped up on sugar you couldn't control yourself. A Texas teen has taken miscarriage of justice one further, avoiding punishment for killing four people because of what his lawyer called "affluenza." In other words, the 16-year-old Ethan Couch is such a spoiled brat because his rich parents never bothered to put any limits on him. Therefore, it was argued, even though his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit when he drove his truck 70 mph in a 40-mph zone – killing four people and seriously injuring two more – how could we possibly expect him to have done otherwise? He was never properly parented by his wealthy family, and so how could he be expected to know right from wrong?

The argument sounds like something out of a TV legal drama, added in to display the occasional absurdities of the legal system, especially in cases where the defense attorney is desperate and has absolutely nothing else to argue. But horrifyingly, in this case, it worked.

Couch was sentenced to probation. So much for a 24-year old woman whose car had broken down on the side of the road, along with the mother and daughter who came to help. And so much, too, for the pastor who also stopped to help the stranded motorist. They're all dead. And two of Couch's passengers are seriously injured; one of them, also a teen, is now paralyzed. Couch earlier this month pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

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Before sentencing, a defense-provided psychologist, G. Dick Miller, said Couch would not benefit from jail, but rather from therapy. "This kid has been in a system that's sick. If he goes to jail, that's just another sick system."

There's a sickness to the system here. And it won't be solved by the $450,000-a-year rehab center Couch will be attending, courtesy of his parents. And he's learned his lesson anyway – that the rich don't live like you and me. They aren't held to the same standards of personal accountability, either.

  • Read Peter Fenn: The Budget Deal and Bob Dole Provide Reasons to Smile in Washington
  • Read Kelly Riddell: Obama's Minimum Wage Increase Will Do Nothing to Reduce Poverty
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