Until this week, the term “affluenza” was bandied about by academics and thinkers worried about the worst consumerist tendencies of modern life.
After this week, the term will be forever conjoined with a provocative legal defence strategy that appears to have worked.
On Tuesday, a Texas judge sentenced a wealthy 16-year-old boy to 10 years probation – instead of the possible 20-year prison term – for his role as the driver in a drunk driving crash that killed four people and injured two. At the time of the crash, Ethan Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the Texas legal limit of .08 for an adult.
During the trial, defence witness, psychologist Gary Miller testified that Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have,” according to the local ABC affiliate.
Miller described Couch as a product of affluenza, “where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences,” ABC reports.
As an example of Couch getting whatever he wanted, Miller relayed a particularly shocking episode: “Couch’s parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed, 14-year-old girl.”
Those who write about affluenza, such as Oliver James, link extreme entitlement and obsessive consumption with mental illness and substance abuse. So it is perhaps not surprising that Miller urged the court to consider therapy, not jail time, for Couch.
But as Slate writer Josh Voorhees sees it, even though the judge hasn’t explicitly said she was swayed by Miller’s testimony, the families of the victims – or most anybody following the case – think she undoubtedly was:
“Given the ‘affluenza’ defense – along with the fact that the teen’s parents will be the ones paying for his stay at a $450,000-a-year, in-patient rehab facility near Newport Beach, Calif. – one doesn’t have to squint to see what looks an awful lot like a double-standard predicated on the teen’s family wealth. ‘Money always seems to keep [the kid] out of trouble,’ said Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash. ‘Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If [he] had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.’”
While the case calls to mind other brash legal defences, like, as The Daily Beast points out, the Twinkie Defence, this stomach-churning new use of the term affluenza is making many of us wish we could all go back to a simpler time, when we rolled our eyes at excesses and designer loot of the Rich Kids of Instagram.