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The Affluenza Defense and Parental Responsibility


Many of us have followed the tragic events set in motion by Ethan Couch, the "affluenza teen." Two years ago, at the age of 16, he killed four people and caused permanent disability in a fifth person while driving drunk. The Juvenile Court Judge hearing Couch's case declined to sentence him to the twenty years requested by the prosecution, and instead ordered Couch to attend substance abuse rehabilitation and imposed a ten year probation requiring him to refrain from drug and alcohol use. Couch became known as the "affluenza teen" due to a defense expert testifying that he could not be held accountable for his actions because his parents had spoiled him with privilege and wealth, never disciplining him or teaching him right from wrong.

Fast forward to November 2015, when a video surfaced showing Couch at a party with beer cups all around and drinking games being played--an apparent violation of his probation. When Couch missed his mandatory appointment with his probation officer, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Soon it was discovered that Couch and his mother, Tonya, were missing. After a nearly three week search, the affluenza teen and his mother were found in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Tonya Couch was deported to the U.S., and is now facing a felony charge of hindering apprehension of a felon (her son). If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison. Ethan Couch is still in a Mexican jail, fighting extradition. What fate ultimately awaits the affluenza teen depends on whether his case will remain in juvenile court or whether it will be transferred to adult court.


Although the case of the affluenza teen and his mother is certainly an extreme example, many parents will go to great lengths to protect their children from criminal liability. Although shielding children from harsh consequences is understandable, doing so can create unforeseen problems for parents that may in some instances be worse than what their children were facing. Consider the following hypothetical: Sasha, a wealthy art student, gets together with some friends one night and on a whim they decide to graffiti paint colorful images and pictures on several blocks of private business property. When the business owners find their property defaced the next day, and discover the culprits, they press charges. Sasha's parents assert that Sasha did not intend to harm the properties; she is an artist who has been raised as a free spirit and taught to embrace her artistic impulses, wherever they may lead her.

In their attempt to diminish her criminal liability in a simple vandalism case, Sasha's parents have unwittingly created huge liability for themselves in the civil case for damages that will certainly follow. An affluenza-type defense is an admission of negligence by parents that can be used in a civil case seeking damages for the harm caused by the child's criminal actions. Admitting that your parenting left your child unable to differentiate right from wrong or to curb impulses is an admission of negligent parenting, since proper parenting is assumed to teach both of those lessons.


The concept of holding parents accountable for the actions of their children is not new, and every state has Parental Responsibility Laws. Some of these laws address what are known as status crimes--infractions based on the age of the perpetrator--such as truancy and breaking curfew. Others are called contributing crimes, such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor and inducing or enabling a crime (think mother-daughter shoplifting team, or the Couch dynamic duo evading arrest).

Other Parental Responsibility Laws are more specific, however. Child Access Prevention Laws, which aim to limit the ability of children to access family members' guns by mandating how and where those guns can be stored, have been enacted in many states. See previous Thomas Law blog "Kids Killing Kids." Laws holding parents responsible for minors engaged in cyber bullying and sexting are common, based on the premise that parents should monitor the online activities of their children.

The types of punishments for violating Parental Responsibility Laws vary. Parents most often face financial repercussions from their children's criminal actions. Increasingly, parents are being ordered to attend parenting classes or training in specific areas as determined by their child's needs (substance abuse prevention, online supervision, etc). Finally, even some some jail time may be imposed in egregious cases, as with Tonya Couch and her affluenza son. In addition, parents can and are being held responsible for the harm caused by their children's criminal actions in civil cases for damages.


If you or a loved one has been injured by the criminal actions of a minor, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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