Ethan Anthony Couch
April 11, 1997
|Occupation||Employee at sheet metal business|
|Known for||The "affluenza" defense|
|Parent(s)||Tonya Couch (mother)|
Fred Couch (father)
|Criminal charge||Intoxication manslaughter|
|Penalty||Initially 10 years' probation. Upon legally reaching adulthood, 720 days in jail as probation condition.|
|Date||June 15, 2013|
Ethan Anthony Couch (born April 11, 1997) is an American man who killed four people while driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs on June 15, 2013, in Burleson, Texas. He was intoxicated, driving on a restricted license and speeding in a residential area when he lost control, colliding with a group of people assisting another driver with a disabled SUV. Four people were killed in the collision and a total of nine people were injured. Two passengers in Couch's truck suffered serious bodily injury, one with complete paralysis.
Couch was indicted on four counts of intoxication manslaughter for recklessly driving under the influence. In December 2013, Judge Jean Hudson Boyd sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and subsequently ordered him to therapy at a long-term in-patient facility, after his attorneys argued that the teen had "affluenza" and needed rehabilitation instead of prison, saying that he didn't know boundaries because his rich parents didn't give him any. Couch's sentence, believed by many to be incredibly lenient, set off what The New York Times called "an emotional, angry debate that has stretched far beyond the North Texas suburbs".
Couch became the subject of a manhunt and was listed in the National Fugitive Database on December 11, 2015, after his probation officer was unable to contact him. On December 28, 2015, authorities detained Couch and his mother in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. On April 13, 2016, he was sentenced to serve two years in prison.
Couch drove himself to school at the age of thirteen. When the head of the school questioned that practice, his father threatened to buy the school. Couch withdrew from Anderson and began attending a co-op based in Watauga, Texas. At 15 he stopped attending that program. Before the incident he was enrolled in a community college.
At the age of fifteen, Couch was cited for "minor in consumption of alcohol" and "minor in possession of alcohol," after he was caught in a parked pick-up truck with a naked, passed out 14-year-old girl. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation, a compulsory alcohol awareness class, and 8 hours of community service.
His parents have also each had legal problems, publicized retrospectively in the media following their son's conviction. Fred Couch has been charged with criminal mischief, theft by check, and assault, but the charges were dismissed. On August 19, 2014, he was arrested for impersonating a police officer, allegedly displaying a fake badge during a disturbance call. In 2013, Tonya Couch was sentenced to a $500 fine and a six-month community supervision order for reckless driving when she used her vehicle to force another motorist off the road.
On the evening of June 15, 2013, according to authorities and trial testimony, Couch was witnessed on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a Walmart store, driving with seven passengers in his father's red 2012 Ford F-350 pickup truck, and speeding at 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) in a designated 40-mile-per-hour (64 km/h) zone.
Approximately an hour after the beer theft, Couch was driving his father's truck at 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) on rural, two-lane Burleson-Retta Road where motorist Breanna Mitchell's sport utility vehicle (SUV) had stalled. Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby, who lived nearby, had come out to help her, as had passing youth minister Brian Jennings. Couch's truck swerved off the road and into Mitchell's SUV, then plowed into Jennings' parked car, which in turn hit an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle. The truck then flipped over and hit a tree. Mitchell, Jennings, and both Boyles were killed, while Couch and his seven teenage passengers (none wearing seat belts) survived (although one was paralyzed), as did the two children in Jennings' car and the two people in the Volkswagen.
Trial and sentencing
Couch was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Tarrant County prosecutors were seeking a maximum sentence of 20 years' imprisonment for Couch.
G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that the teen was a product of "affluenza" and was unable to link his actions with consequences because of his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. It was initially reported that, as part of his sentencing, their son would be sent for teen substance abuse and mental health rehabilitation to Newport Academy, an upscale residential treatment center in Newport Beach, California with costs upwards of $450,000 annually. The facility offers a 90-day treatment program that includes horseback riding, mixed martial arts, massage and cookery, interpretive dance therapy, a swimming pool, basketball and six acres of land.
Following a court hearing closed to the public, Judge Boyd instead sentenced Couch to an unspecified lock-down rehabilitation facility at his parents expense; the time Couch would have to stay there was also unspecified. Couch was ordered to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and driving. A hearing on April 11, 2014, revealed that on February 19, 2014, Couch had begun treatment "at the North Texas State Hospital, a state-owned in-patient mental health facility" in Vernon, Texas. Although the daily rate for the treatment facility is $715, Couch's parents were ordered to pay $1,170 per month for his stay there, based on the state's sliding-scale payment schedule. The amount ordered is the maximum allowed on the payment schedule. Couch's parents promised in court to pay the requested fee for their son's treatment.
Following the probation sentence, the Tarrant County District Attorney's office asked a juvenile judge to incarcerate Couch, on two counts of intoxication assault, saying there had been no verdict formally entered for those charges and "every case deserves a verdict."
One psychologist who disagreed with Couch's sentence—Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, who specializes in "the costs of affluence in suburban communities"—maintains that research shows feelings of entitlement among affluent youth are a social problem, and that "we are setting a double standard for the rich and poor". Luthar asked, "What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times ... what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?"
Writing in The Guardian, Texas student Jessica Luther points out that Couch's family's ability to pay for private therapy, i.e., their wealth, was intrinsic to the judge's reasoning for giving Couch a light sentence. An offender without their means would end up in the overcrowded, publicly supported Texas juvenile justice system where (the judge noted) Couch "might not get the kind of intensive therapy in a state-run program that he could receive at the California facility suggested by his attorneys".
Another psychologist—Robin S. Rosenberg—has argued Miller's defense makes no sense because Couch could have learned that bad behavior has consequences in other areas of his life, and that a sentence to a luxurious rehabilitation home reinforces the message "that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior".
Critics have also complained that the presiding judge—District Judge Jean Boyd—gave a much harsher sentence to another 16-year-old intoxicated driver 10 years earlier. In February 2004, Boyd sentenced Eric Bradlee Miller to 20 years, telling him, "the court is aware you had a sad childhood ... I hope you will take advantage of the services [offered by the Texas Youth Commission] and turn your life around." Miller had killed one victim, not four, and had a much lower blood alcohol level (0.11% compared to Couch's 0.24%) but was from a much poorer family.
However, according to The New York Times, it is unclear if Couch's family's wealth played a part in his sentence. "[I]t is not uncommon for minors involved in serious drunken-driving cases and other crimes to receive probation instead of prison time", and the sentence may be part of "a growing trend of giving a young person a second chance through rehabilitation instead of trying him as an adult". Judge Boyd also has a prior history of attempting to place youths in rehabilitation rather than jail.
The leading Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2014 Texas gubernatorial election, respectively, Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, commented on the sentence. Davis referred to it as a "disgrace" and Abbott, Texas's attorney general, stated that his office was looking to appeal the case.
At a February 5, 2014 hearing, Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, said "Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different."
Five civil lawsuits were filed by families of the four victims and two of the passengers between September and November 2013, against Couch, his family, and Cleburne Metal Works (doing business as Cleburne Sheet Metal, as the truck's registered owner). An additional lawsuit was filed in December 2013, by the family of Isaiah McLaughlin, a passenger in Jennings' vehicle. The lawsuits were filed by:
- Eric and Marguerite Boyles, husband and daughter of victim Hollie Boyles and father and sister to victim Shelby Boyles
- Marla Mitchell, mother of victim Breanna Mitchell
- Shaunna Jennings, wife of victim Brian Jennings
- Maria Lemus and Jesus Molina, parents of passenger Sergio Molina
- Kevin and Alesia McConnell, parents of Lucas McConnell, who was a passenger in Jennings' vehicle
- Timothy and Priscilla McLaughlin, parents of Isaiah McLaughlin, who was another passenger in Jennings' vehicle
The first lawsuit was filed by Maria Lemus and Sergio Molina on behalf of their son Sergio E. Molina, who was riding in the bed of Couch's truck and suffered a traumatic brain injury. According to the suit petition, Molina's medical expenses exceeded an estimated $600,000 at the time and could top $10 million if he needs round-the-clock care.
Five of the six suits (all those except the McLaughlin suit) were consolidated in January 2014 to save court costs. The McLaughlin and Mitchell suits were settled out-of-court by March 2014, and Sergio Molina's family reached an out-of-court settlement in May 2014. By November 2014, all of the suits had been settled with the exception of the suit by McConnell, who had requested a jury trial.
In the McConnell suit, lawyers for the defendants filed a writ of mandamus in July 2014 to prevent access to the records of Dr. Miller; the emergency stay was granted by the Texas Court of Appeals in August, but mandamus was subsequently denied in September.
The McConnell suit was settled in October 2015.
Fugitive status and capture
In late 2015, authorities began investigating a claim made on Twitter on December 2, 2015. The user posted a video along with a caption stating that Couch was in violation of his probation. The video shows several young people playing beer pong at a party, one of whom appears to be Couch. This conduct would be in direct violation of Couch's 10-year probation if any alcohol consumption were involved. Consequences might include a re-sentencing, which could mean a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment, according to the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office. A warrant was issued for Couch on December 11, 2015, after his probation officer could not reach him. On December 18, 2015, Couch and his mother were reported as missing, and as having not been reached after failing to make contact with Couch's probation officer. The fugitive hunt for Couch became a federal matter in December 2015 with the U.S. Marshals Service, FBI, and other agencies joining the hunt for the suspect who was believed to have fled the country. A $5,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts or arrest of Ethan Couch was offered.
Couch and his mother were discovered and arrested in Puerto Vallarta, in Jalisco, Mexico on December 28, 2015. Mexican authorities transported the pair to immigration offices in Guadalajara for deportation to the United States. Ethan Couch won a delay in his deportation, based on a constitutional appeal in Mexico (see recurso de amparo), and was transported to a detention facility in Mexico City. His mother was deported December 30 aboard a commercial flight to Los Angeles International Airport and arrested upon arrival December 31 by the Los Angeles Police Department on a felony charge of hindering apprehension of a felon. She was initially being held on $1 million bail, but after her transfer back to Tarrant County, a judge dropped her bail to $75,000 and she was released from jail January 12, having posted bond.
Couch, having dropped his fight to avoid being deported from Mexico, was flown back to the United States on January 28, 2016, and was held in custody before appearing at a hearing on February 19 regarding his original juvenile probation case being transferred to the adult court system. The case was transferred to the adult court system on February 19, 2016, and the court stated that Couch will remain on probation until 2024. On April 13, 2016, the court sentenced Couch to serve four consecutive terms of 180 days in jail (one term for each of the 2013 car crash victims) equaling two years in jail, as punishment regarding his original drunk driving case from 2013 in light of his recent trip to Mexico.
Couch was released on April 2, 2018. It is mandatory that he wear an ankle monitor, an alcohol detection patch, submit to drug testing and conform to a 9 p.m. curfew. He is permitted to drive and has a video-equipped interlock ignition device installed in his vehicle, which will prevent him from starting his car without passing a breathalyzer test, according to Mike Simonds of the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office.
The non-profit organization Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) criticized Couch's release as a "grave injustice," vowing to keep a close eye on his case:
The 720 days Ethan Couch served for his crimes shows that drunk driving homicides still aren't treated as the violent crimes that they are ... We will be watching, because this case brought to light that there is so much more work to be done to hold drunk drivers accountable.— MADD, Statement in response to Ethan Couch, the "affluenza teen's" release from jail, 
- Brock Turner, another convicted criminal whose sentence—which prosecutors and victims advocates call lenient—spurred public outrage.
- Robert H. Richards IV
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