Fake illness “affluenza” highlights real illness in our justice system

Correction: Dr. Thomas Plante was orignally credited as teaching at Arizona State University; he is a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. This error has since been corrected.

It was late June 15 in Burleson, Texas. A wife and daughter left home to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down earlier. Also on scene to help was Pastor Brian Jennings. None realized they would spend their last moment together on the side of the road — never to see their friends or family ever again.

Ethan Couch, 16, barreled down a road at 70 miles per hour, though the speed limit was 40 mph. Couch was unaware of what was going on and what he was doing while driving his pickup with two others riding in the back bed. Why? Because he was intoxicated with a blood alcohol content of 0.24 — three times the legal adult limit.

This tragedy ended with Couch slamming into all four pedestrians who came out to help Mitchell with her SUV, killing them all and throwing the other two from the back of his bed. Couch’s two friends lived, though not without a cost; one is permanently paralyzed as a result of an irreversible brain injury, and the other is still recuperating from internal injuries and broken bones.

Couch lived with little to no injury and will now walk away without any jail time for murder and endangerment of others because he suffers from a condition, dubbed “affluenza,” that stems from his parents’ wealth and inability to teach him right from wrong.

On Feb. 5, a judge ruled that Couch would not see any jail time for his four counts of intoxication manslaughter. Instead, his parents will pay out-of-pocket for rehabilitation — during which time Couch is expected to abstain from drugs, alcohol and driving. Should he violate the conditions, it will result in a 10-year sentence behind bars.

This case highlights some major problems our society faces. Affluenza doesn’t even seem to be a real thing, but instead is some well-paid attorney’s gig to keep this teen out of prison. It is becoming too easy for us to blame people’s actions on outside factors, and the system seems to be starting to eliminate responsibility for the elite.

“I think that is stupid. It’s not real. Being rich is not a handicap,” said sociology junior Erika Davis. “He was old enough to know right from wrong — it’s not that hard to figure out.”

History junior Apollo Abonza said, “I don’t think affluenza is a real thing. He was 16; he should have already known right from wrong. We don’t learn everything from our parents; it’s our responsibility to make our own choices. It is becoming too easy to take away personal responsibility. People are good actors, and it’s too easy to get away with anything now.”

After an interview with Discovery News, Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante said, “It’s a cute idea in the public’s imagination, but there’s no diagnostic criteria that says people have affluenza.”

Prosecutor Riley Shaw said in a prepared statement, “It is our hope that the attention drawn by this case highlights the dangers associated with driving while intoxicated and will ensure that a tragedy such as this one will never happen again.”

To refresh, here is a review of those penalties we needed to know in order to pass our driver’s exams, courtesy of the Texas DMV’s website. A DWI charge means that one was caught driving while intoxicated. Drinking in the vehicle is illegal. Otherwise, if you are 21 or older, the legal limit in order to drive without consequences is 0.08 percent. If you are younger than 21, any amount is considered above the legal limit. As far as anyone is concerned, drinking younger than 21 is illegal — just so you know.

If you are a minor and are caught DWI, your first offense will result in a 180-day suspension of your license. Your second offense will result in two years of license suspension. However, if your offense becomes intoxication manslaughter because one or several people died as a result of the incident, then the charge becomes a second-degree felony, which, in Texas, warrants between two and 20 years in prison.

Therefore, unless you are suffering from affluenza, I strongly recommend you use responsible judgment and caution when out partying or even just having a good time with your friends. Please do not drink and drive. Please do not even go have some drinks and then think you can drive. I doubt that any of the victims’ families are finding comfort that being rich and irresponsible has now been diagnosed as a condition. Always remember that next time, it could be your friend or loved one who is the victim.

 Opinion columnist Juanita Deaver is an anthropology freshman and may be reached at [email protected]

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