Crime and Punishment in the 2010s: Affluenza and the Criminal Defense Attorney

  • Posted on: 1 May 2015
  • By: brent

If there is any segment of society viewed with more disdain than judges, lawyers, and their political offshoots, it would almost definitely be criminals. Floating at the bottom of the criminal pool are those who have committed lethal crimes against innocent victims and show little remorse for their actions. As a criminal defense attorney, sometimes the clients who come to you have committed dangerous acts that cannot be defended on a moral ground, even if we must defend those clients on an ethical basis.
 
Many of our clients have struggled with alcohol and drug use or abuse, who have placed others at risk by their bad acts. These clients know they've done something that will impact their future, and that of those they care about, and they come to us to achieve the best possible outcome for their case. Our intake form asks the client "What result would you like to achieve?" and the answer is typically no jail, no probation, dismissal... and effectively washing their hands of the criminal charge in exchange for their legal fees. In reality, these clients generally want to find a way to modify their behavior to avoid future legal problems while not limiting their life significantly. When major mistakes happen, our clients need a helping hand to get things back on track. And when you regularly use drugs and alcohol, these mistakes may be frequent and even tragic.
 
A couple of years ago the Texas legal community came under fire when a 16-year old drunk driver who had killed and severely injured a group of innocent victims was sentenced to a long inpatient therapy term and a very long probation. Ethan Crouch has a blood alcohol level three times the adult legal limit at the time of the accident after stealing beer from a local department store with his friends. His defense attorneys and expert witness argued that "affluenza" was to blame, a new malady constructed to provide a defense for a young man who apparently cared very little about others as a result of his rich parents also caring very little about others. Professional therapists reacted with the same disdain as the general public regarding this new, all-encompassing excuse for bad behavior, arguing that affluenza was "not even construct that makes sense." From an outsider's perspective, our society has generated a lot of bad rich kids who place little value on ethical behavior, so there's a logical tie-in between the moronic attitudes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus and this horrible story. One could easily argue that these pop tarts have acted in just as dangerous a manner as Ethan Crouch, only without the horrific outcome.
 
But all that is nearly irrelevant to the criminal defense attorney. While we take part in intellectual arguments about legal rulings, our career goal is to negotiate great deals for our clients prior to trial or win outright when the trial comes. We care about society and encourage our clients to behave more responsibly, but in the end a dismissal, time served plea, or short probation makes us and our clients happy. If this means arguing for nonsense like "affluenza", we need only feel comfortable that our expert knows more about the topic than we do, and that our client is going to benefit more from the positive verdict than they will from a long prison sentence.
 
Let me outline a real-world problem that occurs with DWI cases where there is no injury or death. Frequently we have clients approach us on a second or third DWI looking for a way out of a long probation and an interlock breathalyzer device on their vehicle. While we can negotiate the punishment, there are many required provisions as you get into the multiple DWI and DWI over .15 area. What's more, multiple DWI clients may have an alcohol addiction that requires treatment, making a successful probation term unlikely. In those cases, if I can negotiate a very short jail sentence and have a client finished with their case within a few months, is that ethical? Placing a client back on the street with an alcohol addiction may be the best result for that person from a financial perspective, but the lack of adequate treatment will put society at risk. And while no injury or death might have resulted, clients are frequently just as irresponsible as Ethan Crouch without the unfortunate tragic result.
 
Here, Ethan Crouch received luxury spa-level treatment for a year and then faces a decade of probation. Generally, early release from probation is an option at around the halfway point when all conditions are met. Here, the court may not release Ethan due to the tragic circumstances of his actions. So is society better off with Ethan learning to be a better person in a therapeutic environment then being monitored closely for ten years for potential mistakes... or would we be better off placing him in prison? Does the net benefit of societal healing justify another long-term inmate? These questions don't have easy answers.
 
Ethan Crouch is a hormonal teenager who was given a two-ton killing machine and made terrible decisions that resulted in tragedy. Many of us made dangerous decisions when we were young and stupid, but his will impact many lives forever. Whether caused by Ethan being a dumb kid with too much time and too little responsibility (which describes most teenagers) or by his parents' wealth and disinterest, Ethan's criminal defense attorneys saw a way to benefit Ethan provide him an opportunity to live a somewhat normal life following his crime. That is their responsibility to their client, the profession, and the legal system as a whole.
 
And in the end, the fear of a rash of "affluenza" related defense strategies are likely unfounded. In reality, we will probably experience harsher DWI penalties in the coming months as the sting of this verdict is felt by prosecutors across the state. This is just one more reason to be responsible on the roadways, and to keep in mind a quality, experienced criminal defense firm like Burpee Law if you do find yourself in a bad position. With summer on its way, let's stay safe out there and remember that there are always others relying on us to make the right decisions, lest we not fall into a Ethan Crouch-style tragedy.  

By Brent Burpee (Originally Written for Chad West, PLLC: www.chadwestlaw.com)