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Hypocrisy on ‘affluenza’ and drunk driving

Staff Columnist

Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 22:02

Nothing sparks a media storm better than a tragedy. That is, nothing besides a chance to engage in class warfare. The young man, Ethan Couch, convicted of killing four in a drunk driving accident has become a symbol of something much more. This tragedy has revealed something truly ugly and incomprehensible about our culture, while simultaneously alluding to a flaw in our legal system.

The worst mistake made in this whole situation – besides the decision to drive while drunk – is the misrepresentation of the defense’s position. The idea that this young man received a get out of jail free card because he was rich is ridiculous. Instead, the defense argued that the accused didn’t know any better, and that he had been spoiled his whole life. The defense went so far as to bring in a psychologist to argue this point.

To describe this effect, the defense coined the unfortunate term “Afluenza.” The term was unhelpful, and played well into this country’s current disdain for the wealthy.

Worse still, this young man was born rich. He didn’t earn it, and frankly he far from deserved it. However, the idea that our legal system will roll over for the rich is untrue and this defense could be replicated for use by the less privileged with ease.

Imagine if the defendant came from a broken single parent household instead of a wealthy one. Let’s up the ante and say his mother or father worked long hours just to put food on the table. This mother or father never really had time for their son. At some point the son falls into a bad crowd, and develops a drinking problem. Then one day he kills four people in a car crash.

In that case a defense attorney could argue that the defendant should be granted leniency due to a lack of proper parenting. This isn’t an unheard of tactic when defending a minor.

Would the above situation have sparked media outrage? No, it would not. It is incomprehensible that bad parenting would be a problem exclusively reserved for those in poverty. The law must remain consistent above all else.

That does not diminish the very real discrimination that exists in our legal system that in part stems from the ability to hire a decent defense attorney.

This is not to say that this young man should be getting off easy. Driving while drunk is a serious offense, and four people are now dead because of it. However, that brings us to another problem with our legal system.

Ethan Couch drove drunk, and that is an offense that should not be taken lightly under any circumstances. However, our system is far too lenient on drunk driving. Society delivers a slap on the wrist for putting a countless number of lives at risk, and then, paradoxically, is outraged when someone is killed.

If this young man had swerved off the side or the road and hit a tree, instead of another car, not only would this case not be a national sensation but the defendant would have received an even more lenient punishment than he already has. Is it really fair that someone’s legal fate should be left to chance?

A quote from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” puts it perfectly, “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house ...Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken – whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead… Whose fault would it be?”

It is an indefensible position that drunk drivers lucky enough not to kill are treated with such indifference – only to have the book thrown at them when it’s a human instead of a tree that gets clobbered. On this situation our legal system and the views of everyday people are totally incoherent, and until that is fixed all of this whining is unjustified.

This is a tragedy and Ethan Couch deserves a much stiffer punishment. However, he doesn’t deserve to be the focal point for America’s anti-one percent bigotry. He was enabled by a family to cowardly to control him, and a society that lacks the will to punish until it’s too late. 

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