‘Affluenza’ teen whose lawyers argued he was too spoiled to go to jail is locked up again

Ethan Couch was arrested Thursday over an alleged probation violation.

Ethan Couch. —Tarrant County Sheriff's Office via AP

Ethan Couch, the Texas man whose “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving crash fueled fierce debate over the role of privilege in the criminal justice system, was arrested Thursday over an alleged probation violation.

Authorities booked the 22-year-old into Tarrant County jail, where he was being held without bond, records show. Couch is accused of testing positive for THC in a mandatory drug test that was part of his probation, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

An attorney representing Couch did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

Couch’s arrest is the latest turn in a bizarre legal saga that began in 2013, when Couch plowed his father’s pickup truck into a group of people helping a motorist on a Texas roadside. The crash killed Breanna Mitchell, 24, Brian Jennings, 41, Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby, 21.

Advertisement

Couch, then 16, was drunk and had traces of the anti-anxiety drug Valium in his blood. Several passengers in his car were badly injured, including Sergio Molina, who was left paralyzed. Molina’s family won a $2 million settlement from the Couch family in 2014.

In the criminal case, Couch’s defense team argued that the teenager was spoiled as a child and that his wealthy upbringing prevented him from understanding the full consequences of his actions. His family owned a metal business and was reported to be worth millions.

Psychologist Dick Miller testified that Couch suffered from “affluenza” and argued for substance abuse treatment rather than jail time.

“Instead of the golden rule, which was ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ he was taught we have the gold, we make the rules at the Couch household,” Miller told the court.

The widely panned “affluenza” argument prompted national discussion about access to legal defense and the disparate penalties poor and wealthy people receive in criminal cases.

Ultimately, a judge sentenced Couch to 10 years of probation, ordering him to remain drug- and alcohol-free during that period. Couch had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated.

In December 2015, Couch was caught drinking in a video that surfaced on social media. He and his mother, Tonya, fled to the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta, sparking an international manhunt.

Advertisement

Authorities eventually tracked down the mother and son when they ordered a pizza at their condominium. Couch was sentenced to two years in jail for probation violation.

His mother was charged with hindering apprehension of a felon and money laundering; her case is pending. An attorney representing her did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an unrelated case, Couch’s father, Fred, was sentenced in 2016 to a year of probation for impersonating a police officer. When police were called to a domestic disturbance in North Richland Hills, Texas, Fred Couch flashed a badge and told them he belonged to police reserves. In reality, he was a volunteer with a local search-and-rescue team.

Ethan Couch was released in April 2018 after spending 720 days in Tarrant County jail – 180 days for each of the four people he killed. His case has since become a rallying cry for the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has pushed for harsher penalties for impaired drivers who kill others.

“It was devastating to so many people” MADD President Colleen Sheehey-Church told The Washington Post at the time. “Seven-hundred and 20 days just shows you drunken driving homicides aren’t treated as violent crimes.”

The Washington Post’s Alex Horton contributed to this report.

Close

Get the latest breaking news sent directly to your phone. Download our free app.