When one thinks of legal justifications for manslaughter, typically three arguments come to mind: self-defense, “heat of passion”, and insanity. However, a recent event that has captured the national media and general public’s attention has introduced a new element into the equation – “affluenza”.
In June of 2013, a 16-year-old driving a pickup truck in Tarrant County, Texas hit and killed four individuals and seriously injured two passengers. At the time of the accident, the teenager was operating the vehicle under the influence of alcohol and with a BAC level of three times the legal limit. The teen had previously been charged with drinking and possession of alcohol, but needless to say, his run-in with the law had little effect on his behavior. The case, however, transcends the typical DUI.
While the event is a tragedy for a variety of reasons, the story would not have remained in the eyes of the general public for as long as it has were it not for the defense counsel’s unprecedented argument. The lawyer’s argument, in a nutshell, was that his client was not responsible for his actions because he was suffering from the condition of affluenza. The term is a portmanteau of “affluent” and “influenza,” and one finds the following when consulting a dictionary:
“A psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.”
The defendant’s lawyer explained that his client’s parents had set no limits for their son, and that his impulse control problems were a direct result of growing up in such an environment. In short, the culture of materialism and absence of consequences were grounds for absolving the teenager of responsibility for stealing beer from a local Walmart, driving while intoxicated, and killing four innocent individuals in addition to leaving two passengers seriously injured. One of those passengers, Sergio M., is now paralyzed. His family is suing the teen, the teen’s family, and the business owned by the teen’s parents (to which the vehicle was registered) for damages cumulatively amounting to $20 million.
Defense counsel was supported by Texas psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller, who is adamant that affluenza is a bona fide defense in the case at hand. While Miller recognizes that the “condition” is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM, he believes that the teenager, as a result of affluenza, did not possess the mental acuity that would warrant him culpable for his actions. Among those who recognize affluenza as a legitimate condition, addiction and personality disorder are seen to be the primary symptoms.
This story has captured the national media’s attention yet again, as Texas District Judge Jean Boyd yesterday sentenced the teenager to 10 years probation, conditional on his long-term psychological and addiction treatment. The family will reportedly pay $450,000 annually for their son to attend a rehabilitation center in California. The ruling is controversial on its own, but to make matters worse, it has been reported that the same judge had previously sentenced a 14-year-old African American to 10 years in a juvenile detention center for killing one person. Across news syndicates and social media, critics of the decision have reiterated that had the defendant in the present case been a minority or subject to different socio-economic circumstances, it is likely that he would be facing time in a juvenile penitentiary.
While incarceration is far from the perfect solution, there has been a strong consensus that 10 years probation is merely a “slap on the wrist,” and will do little to change the teenager’s behavior. On a broader level, this incident has provoked discussion and debate about the juvenile criminal justice system, and the appropriate penalties for DUI-related involuntary manslaughter. It has also served as an example of the richer class receiving differential treatment in what is supposed to be an impartial court of law. Until these disparities are addressed and rectified by society as a whole, even those with big bank accounts, will suffer.
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