Does growing up with financial privilege make people less aware of cause-and-effect or right and wrong? More to the point, can the fact that you were raised in an affluent household be used as a valid defense if you're charged with a crime?
This phenomenon, known as the "affluenza" defense, has been a topic of fierce debate over the years, but in reality, it has been held up in court on occasion.
Despite efforts from California lawmakers to ban its use, there is currently no legal barrier to claiming the "affluenza" defense in California courtrooms—and in rare cases, it may even result in a reduced sentence or dismissal of one or more charges.
So, in California, a criminal defendant, in theory, could use an “affluenza” legal defense to reduce their sentence or even avoid criminal liability altogether, but this is not to suggest it's a wise move because it could alienate a judge or jury.
There have been some court cases where legal counsel mounted an "affluenza defense" to say their client's social condition afflicted them, causing them not to understand the full consequences of their actions. Simply put, it states a wealthy person isn't criminally liable for their actions.
The term “affluenza” combines the words “affluence” and “influenza” to describe the unhealthy effects of wealth on both people and society, as well as a condition in which people tend to be focused on financial success above all else.
Some common signs of affluenza include a preoccupation with work and earning more and more money, as well as extreme materialism and consumerism. Sometimes, people struggling with affluenza might experience feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and chronic dissatisfaction with their current situation.
Also, some people struggling with affluenza frequently feel dissatisfied with their current level of success, regardless of how much material wealth and possessions they have accumulated. In pursuit of more money, they often work excessively and tie their self-worth to their wealth and possessions.
What is the History and Origins of the Affluenza Defense?
The affluenza defense emerged from a high-profile court case in Texas in 2013 in which Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old Texan from a wealthy who had been driving under the influence of alcohol, crashed his pickup truck into a group of people, causing four fatalities.
Couch's blood alcohol level at the time of the incident was reported to be three times the legal limit for an adult. Couch's attorney took an unconventional tack in defending his client, claiming that Couch's wealthy parents had cushioned their son to such an extent that he lacked an understanding of the potential consequences of his actions.
Essentially, the argument was that Couch was too spoiled to fully comprehend the severity of his actions or anticipate their deadly outcome. The term "affluenza" was used by the defense's evaluating psychologist to describe a condition supposedly affecting wealthy young individuals, leading them to demonstrate irresponsible behavior due to their financial privilege.
Despite the severe consequences of Couch's actions, the "affluenza" argument worked. Although Couch pled guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter, the judge imposed ten years of probation instead of the maximum 20 years' imprisonment sought by prosecutors.
Even after Couch violated probation and went to Mexico, his revoked probation only earned him 720 days in jail. This defense strategy sparked widespread debate and outrage, with many viewing it as an attempt to excuse serious criminal behavior based on socioeconomic status.
The Controversy Surrounding the Affluenza Defense
This defense strategy sparked widespread debate and outrage, with many viewing it as an attempt to excuse serious criminal behavior based on socioeconomic status.
Proponents of the affluenza defense argue that it highlights the psychological impact of wealth and privilege on an individual's perception of right and wrong.
They contend that individuals raised in such environments may be genuinely incapable of comprehending the consequences of their actions, thus making them less culpable.
Critics, on the other hand, view the defense as fundamentally flawed. They argue that it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law by allowing wealthy individuals to escape accountability for their actions based on their privileged backgrounds.
They further contend it sets a dangerous precedent, potentially encouraging similar defenses in other cases involving affluent defendants.
The use of the affluenza defense in other court cases is uncommon and often controversial. It has been cited in a few instances, though its reception and success have varied widely.
It should also be noted that "affluenza" is not a recognized psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), which is considered the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.
The Affluenza Defense in California
In California, the legal validity of the affluenza defense is murky at best. While no specific legislation or case law endorses or prohibits its use, the courts view it skeptically. Given its controversy, judges and prosecutors will likely challenge its validity and relevance.
In response to the public outcry following the Texas case, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto proposed a bill in 2013 aimed at banning the use of the 'affluenza' defense in California courts. The bill argued that wealth or privilege should not be a factor in determining criminal culpability. While the bill sparked significant debate, it ultimately failed to pass.
Today, the acceptance of the affluenza defense remains uncertain in California. While no law prohibits it, it remains a controversial strategy that sparks debates about wealth, privilege, and justice—and despite its legality, it only rarely convinces a judge or jury to acquit or impose leniency.
Ironically, someone's belief that more money will make them happy may result in a perpetual state of unhappiness. Research has shown numerous adverse effects of wealth in children and adults over the past three decades, such as depression, anxiety, lack of intimacy and connection, and substance abuse.
Contact our California criminal defense lawyers for a case review and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.