What is affluenza? An explainer for the 99%

Today, Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who got off with probation after killing four in a DUI incident because he was “diagnosed” with “affluenza,” and his mother Tonya were reported captured by authorities in Mexico.

The pair had gone missing earlier this month and were presumed to be attempting to escape authorities.

If you’re just reading the story now, you may still have some questions about what led up to this moment. We have answers.

What is affluenza?

The word is a combination of two other words, influenza and affluence. It was originally used by social studies writers to describe the condition of people who, despite accumulating more material goods, continued to feel unhappy.

But the word took on a different meaning in 2013 after it was introduced by G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired by defense attorneys during Couch’s DUI case. Miller said that because of his affluence and upbringing, the 16-year-old had “freedoms no young person should have” that destroyed the link between behavior and consequences, according to ABC affiliate WFAA. Therefore, he could not be fully responsible for the accident.

Affluenza is not a recognized condition by professional psychologists. Rather, Miller said he had long used the term in the context of the effect wealth can have on one’s sense of responsibility, according to an interview he did with CNN, although he also said he regrets introducing it in the case of Couch.

Who is Ethan Couch?

Couch was the driver in the above-mentioned DUI case. In June of 2013, he plowed his pickup truck into a group of people, killing four and injuring nine. He was later found to have a blood-alcohol content three-times the legal limit, and also had valium in his system. He was going 70 mils per hour in a 40 zone.

Instead, his lawyers’ affluenza defense seemed to work: Instead of going to prison, he was sentenced to 10-years probation.

Couch’s family owns a successful sheet metal business. It’s not clear what their net-worth is, but they were prepared to send Couch to a $450,000 treatment facility. Instead, Couch’s treatment ended up being paid for by taxpayers.

The judge in the case, Jean Boyd, remains on the bench.

Has anyone been “diagnosed” with “affluenza” since Couch?


Why is Ethan Couch in the news now?

As mentioned, Couch and his mother went missing earlier this month, and were presumed to be attempting to elude authorities. On Tuesday the pair were found in Puerto Vallarta by Mexican authorities. It also emerged that Couch apparently had the equivalent of a going-away party before he skipped town. They were apparently caught after trying to order Domino’s.

What will happen to Couch and his mother?

He actually still won’t face much jail time. In January, he has a hearing scheduled that could allow him to be treated as an adult rather than a juvenile, according to ABC. If he continues to be treated as a juvenile, the longest sentence he could receive is four months in confinement.

But, according to ABC, even if he is transferred to an adult court, the maximum amount of time that he will spend in jail is 120 days since the adult court is bound by the terms of the original 10-year probation, though he would likely now have to wear a tracking device.