Creative Lawyering? The Affluenza Defense in Texas

No two situations are exactly the same. Every picture, scene or witness tells a unique story. These stories have different endings depending on the way they get told. This idea is similar to how people often think about a criminal trial. It’s all about telling a story – and the better story-teller the attorney is, the better chance he or she will be successful. Both sides do it – the prosecution and the defense – and it has become necessary in order to win.

And while you may have heard of some creative strategies in the past, there is one in particular that has garnered rather a lot of publicity, and it happened right here in Texas. Back in June, a young driver, Ethan Couch, was driving while under the influence of alcohol and subsequently caused the deaths of four individuals and injured nine others.

Charges were filed later in September and in the end, Couch was sentenced to ten years probation and no jail time. This was a devastating accident and there was no argument that alcohol was indeed involved. So, then, how did Couch get out of serving any time in jail?

Well, during the criminal trial, a psychologist testified for the defense and cited a condition that was alleged to have impacted Couch’s mental state. This condition has been termed the “affluenza” defense. Specifically, the psychologist cited an affliction that causes children (usually those from affluent families) to have a certain sense of entitlement. This feeling of entitlement causes the children to be irresponsible and make excuses for their bad behavior. Allegedly, this all stems from parents not setting the proper boundaries.

Because this so-called “affluenza” defense was so successful in the Couch trial, many anticipate that it will become a more common strategy. The term was first coined by Jessie O’Neill who authored a book in the ”˜90s called The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.

Gary Buffone, a Florida psychologist has concerns related to the possible surge that may come with the holding in the Couch trial. One big concern is the fact that this affluenza affliction is not actually a recognized diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based attorney, Areva Martin doesn’t put too much stock in this defense. Martin notes that because so many people have expressed shock and anger after the Couch decision was publicized, not too many judges would even consider going near it. Even if affluenza defenses did become both common and successful, lawmakers would most likely be quick to implement new laws in order to curb the trend.

There is, of course, another aspect of this trial – the defendant was a juvenile. In cases involving juveniles, judges are typically less likely to enforce a maximum sentence. Of course, in this case, the defendant will serve absolutely zero time in prison. Generally, a good attorney will use anything associated with the client’s background to help show that he should not be held responsible for the alleged crime.

It remains to be seen how successful this defense will turn out to be in the future, but the idea of storytelling and creative lawyering will likely always be used in criminal trials.