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Does California have an "affluenza" legal defense?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Feb 01, 2014 | 0 Comments

Strictly speaking, yes.

As of now, California criminal defendants could--in theory--use the so-called "affluenza" legal defense to reduce their criminal sentences, or even avoid criminal liability altogether

In 2013, a wealthy 16-year-old in Texas named Ethan Crouch drove drunk and plowed his father's pickup truck into a group of Good Samaritans helping a disabled vehicle. He killed four people and seriously injured several of the friends who were riding with him.

Ethan was convicted of four counts of vehicular manslaughter--but instead of a prison sentence of up to 20 years, the judge gave him only 10 years' probation.

The lenient sentence may be because of the "affluenza" defense offered by Ethan's criminal defense lawyer. According to a defense psychologist, Ethan was spoiled by his affluent parents and had never learned right from wrong or basic self-control. Therefore, he shouldn't be punished too harshly for his misdeeds.

But it's not at all clear that offering an "affluenza" defense would be a good idea for a well-off defendant in a California criminal jury trial. It could backfire by alienating the jury or judge.

And before long, the "affluenza" defense might not even be an option in California. Assemblyman Mike Gatto has introduced a bill that would prevent defense attorneys from even offering the defense in court or at California sentencing hearings. (For information on juvenile indiscretions aggravating future criminal cases, see our article on how a juvenile adjudication of vehicular manslaughter can elevate a California misdemeanor DUI to a felony.)

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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