Criminal Attorney: ‘Affluenza’ Defense Won’t Fly in New Jersey

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Scene of the fatal accident that killed four people near Fort Worth, Texas. (AP photo)

( —  A New Jersey criminal defense attorney says it’s highly unlikely that any of his peers will try the “affluenza” defense Texas lawyers successfully used to get their 16-year-old drunk driving client probation after the teen struck and killed four people near Fort Worth because his wealthy parents overindulged him.

“I don’t think most people will try this,” Edward Zohn, a member of the Federalist Society, told “This is unbelievable, to say that a 16-year-old does not know that if he drinks excessively and gets in a car that he might hurt somebody. My 13-year-old knows that, and he can’t even reach the pedals.”

Last week, Tarrant County Juvenile Court Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation for the fatal June 15 accident that occurred after the teen and his friends stole beer from Walmart. Prosecutors had requested a 20-year jail sentence.

“Affluenza” is not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM 5). But clinical psychologist G. Dick Miller testified during the trial that Couch was not responsible for his actions because his wealthy parents gave him everything he ever wanted and never set limits on his behavior, including failing to punish him last year when he passed out in a pickup truck with a naked 14-year-old girl.

But Miller did not recommend punishment for the teen either. “I’m not interested in how much punishment he gets,” he told CNN host Anderson Cooper. “I’m interested in taking away things that are important to him and replacing them with things that are in his best interests.”

Like the Twinkie defense, the affluenza defense wouldn’t fly in his state, Zohn says. “Recently in New Jersey a woman, a mom, was convicted of driving drunk and being responsible for the death of somebody. She’s in prison for seven years. She’s doing real time, not on probation,” he pointed out.

Although “New Jersey criminal statutes recognize that juveniles do not have the same level of responsibility for their actions as adults, based on my experience in New Jersey, this case would have been moved to adult court,” Zohn said, where vehicular homicide committed while under the influence can be a second degree felony punishable by a mandatory prison sentence of at least 10 years.

“It’s a truism that under all criminal statutes, you have to show some level of intent or be so reckless as to shock the senses. But what they are saying in this case is that the lifestyle this young man lived made him not realize the results of his bad behavior, that it’s impossible for him to be reckless.

“I’m just so dumbfounded, I don’t know what to say. This is one of the very few cases I wouldn’t take even if I was asked to,” Zohn added. “He ruined four people’s lives. He deserves to go to prison.”

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