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“Affluenza”: Legitimate Legal Defense or Junk Science?

On Behalf of | Dec 15, 2013 | national-headlines, negligence

This week’s national headlines featured a criminal case for the ages at the intersection of law and social science.  It also reintroduced America to what has been described as the “All-Consuming Epidemic” for children of extremely wealthy families: “Affluenza.”

The facts of the juvenile criminal proceeding that shocked the nation are simple, though incredibly tragic.  From theLos Angeles Times recap:

“According to officials, the teenager and some friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to testimony during the trial. The pickup fatally struck four pedestrians: Brian Jennings, 43; Breanna Mitchell, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21; and her mother Hollie Boyles, 52.”

Texas prosecutors had sought the maximum 20 years in state custody for the boy for the death of the four pedestrians, but his defense attorneys were able to successfully argue to District Judge Jean Boyd that the ideal sentence for the offender is rehabilitation, as opposed to prison.  Couch will serve 10 years of probation and is anticipated to submit to rehabilitation at a California facility at a cost in excess of $450,000.

So how was it that Couch got off with such a glaringly light sentence under the circumstances?  A piece of exculpatory evidence?  A remorseful plea of mercy at the sentencing hearing?  Other mitigating factors?  Well, sort of.

This time, what carried the day was the defense’s argument that Couch himself was a victim.  The defense presented psychologist G. Dick Miller to testify that Couch was suffering from “affluenza” —that he lived such an extravagant, materialistic, consequence-free life that he was unable to understand or control his behavior. According to Christopher J. Ferguson at Time.com, this is perhaps the first time in American jurisprudence that having too easy a life has been considered a mitigating circumstance.

Read more: “Affluenza” is Junk Science | TIME.com http://ideas.time.com/2013/12/14/psychologist-affluenza-is-junk-science/#ixzz2naPrbUFa

As expected, this sentencing has sent a shock wave through the news media, the blogosphere, and the legal community.  Major criticisms are being levied against the validity of “affluenza” as a defense in our system of justice.  Over at USA Today, the debate is heating up over the future of “affluenza”-type defenses.   Is the “affluenza” defense merely an extension of the law’s insistence that criminal culpability requires an appreciation of the consequences of one’s actions?  Or is this a product of pop psychology without empirical support that would have the odious effect of condoning differential treatment between those litigants who have hoards of money and those who do not?
Although Couch’s sentence would seem to create the sort of double standard based on wealth that the law abhors, I hesitate to be Chicken Little here.  While defense attorneys in both the criminal setting and the civil arena (where the burden of proof is much lower) may try to replicate the success of Mr. Couch’s lawyers, I ultimately don’t see the “affluenza” defense gaining much traction in our courts of law.  For one, “affluenza” as a psychological construct has not received blessing within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association.  Second, prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys will likely respond to the Couch decision by challenging the admissibility of any purported expert testimony on “affluenza” generally and as applied to a particular case.  Finally, our courts of law and the judges who lead them are going to take heed of the public outrage over the “Blame the Parents” implications of this decision.  Judges, particularly in those jurisdictions which select their judges through popular elections, are keenly aware of the political and professional consequences of appearing “soft on crime.”  Although this criticism usually manifests itself with career offenders, there is good reason to believe that citizens will be equally outraged by a judge who over-sympathizes with a wealthy young defendant who seeks to avoid responsibility by claiming that he is the victim of his family’s wealth and the lack of boundaries that attend to that affluence.  The courts will therefore reject the classism that is inherent in the “affluenza” defense to preserve their own accountability to “We the People,” and this most recent case, though intriguing, will become an outlier.