Coming down with a case of “affluenza”?
New words are invented every day as our society evolves. Precocious minds construct new terms to more accurately describe the changing world around us. In Texas, a criminal defense team created a new word that may very well have saved their client from serving prison time. As a Portland criminal defense and DUII attorney, I know how important it is to use language carefully to portray a client in the best light when in front of juries and judges. In my work as a Portland criminal defense and DUII lawyer, I always select words, in both oral and written formats, that will paint a particular picture in the mind of the listener or reader.
On June 15th 2013, in Dallas Fort Worth, Ethan Couch was driving drunk, and, through his own poor driving, caused a car crash which killed four people and seriously injured two. During his trial, an expert hired by the defense testified that Ethan’s actions were a product of his “affluenza”. The new word is a portmanteau (a term for when a new word is created from two preexisting words). The term describes Ethan as having a disease (like influenza) and that disease is his wealth (like affluence). I have been an attorney in Portland and Lake Oswego representing clients in DUII and other criminal cases for many years and I have never heard of a defense like this before. Basically Mr. Couch’s defense argued that, because their client was raised in an environment where he was taught that money can buy anything, he was unable to judge the consequences of his actions.
After his trial, the judge sentenced Mr. Couch to serve time in a rehab facility and put him on probation but did not sentence him to any jail time. As a Portland and Lake Oswego DUII and felony criminal defense lawyer, I have defended people charged with serious crimes like Ethan’s. It can be important to hire experts, like the psychologist did in Ethan’s case, to testify to the mental state of the defendant at the time of the alleged crime. Experts can identify social or biological factors that contributed to a person acting in a particular way. Portland and Lake Oswego defense and DUII attorneys need to keep up their vocabulary in order to effectively represent their clients. While affluenza is not a generally recognized disease in the psychological community or in the DSM-V (the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it has certainly entered into the popular lexicon with this strange case.
It seems odd to me as a Portland defense and DUII lawyer that affluenza can be a defense to extremely reckless, intoxicated driving. Typically mental state defenses are very limited. The insanity defense protects a person when, because of their mental illness, he or she does not know what they are doing or can not realize the basic differences between right and wrong. So, if Bob shoots Nancy, Bob can only use the insanity defense, for example, if he can convince a jury that he thought he was holding a snake instead of a gun, or that he thought Nancy was a tree and killing a tree is far different than killing a person. Most people, even those with serious mental illnesses, have difficulty mounting a successful insanity defense. But, not being able to exercise self-control or understand the full consequences of your actions probably did not sound like a good defense for Ethan’s crimes to his criminal defense attorney. The description of Ethan’s “affluenza” makes it sound like pure and simple immaturity. And, if being immature was a legal defense then we would have a lot less people in prison. While some people may have problems with the results in the this case, as a Portland and Lake Oswego DUII and criminal defense lawyer, I am impressed with the successful lawyering on the part of the Ethan’s defense attorney.