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3Qs: The ‘affluenza’ defense

Last week, a Texas teenager who pleaded guilty to driving drunk and killing four people avoided jail time after a judge sentenced him to receive treatment and 10 years’ probation. In the case, a psychologist called by defense lawyers described the teen as a product of “affluenza”—which refers to how his family’s wealth and his privileged upbringing led to no limits ever being set for him. The case quickly burst into the national spotlight and even led to an online petition demanding the judge be removed from the bench. Here, Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed, an expert in criminal law and criminal procedure, examines the case, saying that while he was surprised by the judge’s sentence, he doesn’t expect “affluenza” to become “affluential” in legal circles.

What was your reaction to this case and the judge’s sentence?

I’m not shocked that a defense lawyer came up with it. They’re ethically obligated to serve as zealous advocates for their clients. In a case like this, which was presumably very challenging for the defense lawyer, this “spoiled brat” defense upholds that obligation. But while I’m not surprised that defense counsel sold it, I am surprised the judge bought it.  On a gut level, it seems like a specious argument, that because you have so many advantages in life and permissive parents therefore you shouldn’t be held as accountable as someone without those advantages.

That said, this is a juvenile case, and many juvenile court judges are interested in the defendants’ rehabilitation and the idea that teenagers can change with the right treatment. Counseling and rehabilitation are often part of a juvenile’s sentence, and it’s worth noting that 10 years’ probation is not insignificant. Violating probation could mean he faces detention. Still, I was fundamentally disturbed to hear that there was no detention time in a case in which four people lost their lives. I see it as a slap on the wrist and I was personally upset, having defended many poor, indigent clients who received stiff sentences.

What impact might this ruling have on future cases or those in the legal profession?

I don’t think “affluenza” will be “affluential” in legal circles, in part because of the reaction to this case. I don’t foresee many defense lawyers trotting out this argument; I assume other judges won’t react well and won’t want to be the next one criticized for being soft on a “spoiled brat.”

One of the biggest issues here is the lack of equity. Defense lawyers often argue that their clients’ impoverished or dysfunctional upbringings should partially excuse their behavior because they didn’t receive the same lessons and guidance growing up that other, more privileged children received. Although that defense rarely succeeds, arguing that someone’s background excuses criminal conduct has been staple of criminal justice for ages. What’s unusual here is the argument that wealth is a disadvantage.

What do you make of how much attention this case has received?

This case is an example of how social media and the Internet can take a relatively obscure case and create a national debate. In the pre-Internet days, I doubt this case would be picked up like it has today. The idea that within hours, hundreds of media outlets were writing and talking about it is fascinating. What this means is that many more people—lawyers, judges, potential jurors—are aware of this defense. It’s an interesting illustration of the changing nature of legal practice in the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

This is a good thing in some respects, because social media and the Internet can provide transparency. A cost, however, is accuracy, because in a land where 140 characters sometimes can be the limit on conveyance of information, things will be left out or twisted inadvertently. So the benefits are transparency and that knowledge is power. The downside is that this breadth of information comes at the expense of depth. It’s a mixed bag, but generally making people aware of these cases and leading to a debate is a positive development.

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