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The affluenza defense to drunk driving charges

Some Florida residents may have been angered in 2013 when a 16-year-old Texas boy received no custodial sentence after admitting that he was drunk when he caused an accident that claimed the lives of four people. The judge elected to order the teen to attend alcohol counseling and serve 10 years of probation after defense attorneys argued that the teen's privileged upbringing had left him incapable of behaving in a morally acceptable manner.

The defense attorneys in the case convinced the judge that what they termed "affluenza" had left the teen unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, and the transcripts of depositions from a civil lawsuit released in October 2015 have shed more light on how the condition developed. The depositions reveal that the teen was often spoiled by his parents as they tried to make up for their frequent arguments and he rarely had to live with the consequences of his actions. The boy was also permitted to drive unaccompanied at the age of 13.

The teen had a blood alcohol level of more than three times the legal limit when he crashed his father's pickup truck into a group of people in June 2013. Police reports indicate that the pickup was traveling on rural roads at speeds of up to 70 mph immediately before the accident. Records also indicate that the teen avoided a DUI charge four months earlier when his mother was called to drive him home after police determined that he was clearly intoxicated.

The public are often outraged by criminal sentences that appear to be too lenient, but the judges making these decisions have more facts at their disposal than those who rely on newspaper reports or television news segments for their information. Criminal defense attorneys will likely be unconcerned with what the media will make of their courtroom strategy as they focus on framing the actions of their clients in the best possible light while bringing mitigating factors to the attention of judges.

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