Observers are outraged by the ruling yesterday that gave a Texas teenager probation after his drunk driving led to the death of four people. I represent Sergio Molina, who has been critically injured in the now famous crash in Burleson this summer and my clients find the sentence handed out to Ethan Couch outrageous.
The tragic collision happened at midnight on June 15th in Burleson. Ethan Couch’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit if he were an adult when he drove his father’s company’s Ford F-350 down a residential road at 70 miles per hour. Meanwhile, a mother and daughter had left to go help a woman whose car was stranded along that road. They, as well as a youth pastor who stopped to assist, were helping the young woman when Couch crashed into them, killing all four. Two of the seven people riding in Couch’s truck were critically injured as well, including my client, Sergio Molina. Mr. Molina suffered such a severe brain injury that, to this day, he is unable to move or speak.
Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter by intoxication and two counts of assault by intoxication causing bodily injury. In the state of Texas, when a driving while intoxicated crime like this occurs, the offender can be sentenced to two to 20 years in detention and/or jail, as well as a fine of up to $10,000. However, under juvenile law, the defendant can request that a judge hear the evidence and sentence him, which Couch and his attorneys elected to do.
At Couch’s trial prosecutors sought the maximum 20-year prison sentence. However the judge instead gave Couch 10 years of probation, apparently based on persuasion by Couch’s attorneys that Couch’s actions were motivated by “affluenza.” Having grown up rich and received everything he ever wanted, the attorneys claimed, Couch had no sense of right and wrong and thus could not make the appropriate moral choice to not drive while extremely intoxicated. He had “freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”
I was in the courtroom throughout the trial. My clients were surprised that a defense attorney would even make such an argument and obviously shocked that the judge might have accepted it. Judge Boyd ruled that what Couch needed treatment and was not sure if he would receive it within the state’s juvenile detention facilities. She also said that If he violated his probation in any way in the next 10 years, he could face a prison sentence. The outcome has outraged critics all over the world for giving Ethan Couch what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
In situations like this, there is often a civil case that parallels the criminal one. I filed suit against Ethan Counch, his parents, and the company that owned the truck in September and other victims’ families have also filed suit. Even when the criminal defendant receives no sentence, he or she may be found liable in the civil case because the standard of proof is lower — “clear and convincing evidence” as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” While the civil decision does not make up for the lack of criminal one, it does give the families of the injured or deceased some vindication. We are working hard to see that justice is done for the victims and hope to change Texas law to prevent this situation from happening in the future.