Are we on the brink of an “affluenza” epidemic? [Updated]

The disease first discovered in a wealthy Texas teenager accused of manslaughter has the potential to mutate and spread to less well-off defendants.

Updated February 7, 2014: On February 6, 2014, Tarrant County prosecutors renewed their efforts to add jail time to E.C.’s sentence during a sentencing hearing before Judge Boyd.  The hearing focused on the two previously unaddressed intoxication assault charges against E.C.  Judge Boyd stood her ground and reaffirmed the rehabilitation and probation sentence, adding that E.C. could not drive or consume drugs or alcohol during the probation period.  Though the hearing was closed to the public, Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the June accident, told reporters that E.C. was headed to a rehabilitation facility in Texas, not in California as originally agreed.  Boyles also said that E.C. would only stay in the facility for as long as it takes him to complete treatment, as determined by the court and professional facility staff.

There are now six civil lawsuits pending against E.C.’s parents and his father’s company.  The cases have been consolidated into one case which will be presided over by Judge R.H. Wallace, Jr. in the 96th District Court.

On June 15, 2013, a group of teenagers was seen on a surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store in northeast Texas.  Later that evening, the friends were involved in a car accident when the F-350 truck in which they were riding struck four people who were standing around a disabled vehicle on the side of the road in rural Burleson, Texas.

The driver was sixteen-year-old E.C. of Keller, Texas, an affluent suburb of Fort Worth. At the time of the accident E.C. was speeding, his blood-alcohol level was 0.24, three times the legal limit, and he had traces of Valium in his system.  All four pedestrians were killed, and two passengers riding in the bed of the truck were severely injured. Ten more people were injured as a result of a chain of collisions caused by the accident.

As a result of the accident, E.C. was charged with and admitted responsibility (the juvenile equivalent of a guilty plea) to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.  During three days of sentencing hearings in Tarrant County Juvenile Court, assistant district attorneys Richard Alpert and Riley Shaw argued for the maximum twenty-year sentence.  Defense attorneys Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn, however, argued that the teen should not face jail time because he suffers from a condition referred to as “affluenza” by a defense witness.

“He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”

E.C.’s parents were divorced when he was very young.  Though they were more than able to provide for him financially through his father’s successful sheet metal business, E.C. received little parental guidance.  He began drinking at a young age, started driving at thirteen, and graduated from high school at sixteen.  Dr. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist who has been working with E.C. since his release from the hospital following the accident, said of E.C. at the sentencing hearing that, “He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”

Tarrant County Courthouse by Mark Fisher

Tarrant County Courthouse by Mark Fisher

According to Miller, E.C. is very intelligent but has the emotional capacity of a twelve-year-old.  Lack of discipline during E.C.’s childhood has left him unable to link bad behavior with negative consequences.  His parents consistently showed him that money could make any problem go away.  For example, Miller revealed that police found a fifteen-year-old E.C. in a parked truck with a passed out, naked fourteen-year-old girl. He received no punishment for that incident.

Because E.C. is unable to associate punishment with past behavior, his attorneys argued that incarceration would be ineffective.  Instead, they requested therapy for the teen, suggesting that he could be rehabilitated and become a productive member of society.  District Judge Jean Boyd seemed to agree, sentencing E.C. to ten years’ probation and long-term in-patient therapy on the manslaughter charges.

The defense team suggested, and Judge Boyd agreed, that programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system would be inadequate to resolve the teen’s issues.  Instead, upon the consent of the Tarrant County Juvenile Probation Department, E.C. will receive therapy at a rehabilitation center in Orange County, California, which will cost his parents approximately $450,000 annually.

Affluent high school students have an above-average risk of “maladjustment.”

Affluenza is not an imaginary condition created by desperate defense attorneys in sticky situations.  A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Columbia University lends support to such a diagnosis.  The study found that rates of substance abuse, particularly alcohol, were significantly higher for high school students living in affluent areas than in communities with more average incomes.  In addition, affluent students generally exhibited more problems with rule-breaking behaviors, body image issues, anxiety, and depression.  The study concluded that affluent high school students have an above-average risk of “maladjustment.”

At least one of the Columbia University researchers, however, does not support using an affluenza diagnosis in order to escape punishment.  In a statement to the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, Dr. Suniya Luthar said that the sentence “set[s] a double standard for the rich and poor” and sends the message that “families that have money, you can drink and drive.”  Luthar also wondered if the judge would have shown the same leniency to a defendant with a poor upbringing.  A case from 2004 provides the answer to this question.

Judge Boyd acknowledged [another young man]’s sad life during his trial but sentenced him to twenty years of incarceration.

Nine years before E.C.’s case, another sixteen-year-old resident of Tarrant County found himself in a similar situation, but the upbringing E.M. experienced could not have been more different.  E.M. was raised solely by his grandfather, Donald Chaffin. Money in the home was tight because Chaffin, in his early seventies at that time, was supporting himself and four other family members.  E.M. had troubles of his own, including depression and bipolar disorder, but had never before been in trouble with the law.

On the night of February 13, 2004, E.M. borrowed some money from his grandfather, which he used to purchase vodka.  Later that evening, he came across a truck with its engine running stopped in a convenience store parking lot.  He stole the truck and soon crashed it into a vehicle driven by nineteen-year-old Philip Andress, killing him. Texas law allowed E.M. to be charged with murder because he had committed a felony in stealing the truck.  He also was charged with failure to stop and render aid.  At the time of the crash, his blood-alcohol level was 0.11.

After the prosecution’s request to treat E.M. as an adult was denied, he was granted a jury trial before Judge Boyd and found guilty.  Judge Boyd acknowledged E.M.’s sad life at his trial but sentenced him to twenty years of incarceration. He was paroled after serving fifty-three months but has since been re-incarcerated.

Many criminal defendants meet the “bad parent” requirement for an affluenza diagnosis; they simply lack the necessary affluence.

 If affluenza had been recognized at the time of E.M.’s case, he might also have been found to be suffering from a variant of the disease.  According to Dr. Miller, the disease can manifest if a child’s parents don’t “[teach] him the things that good parents teach children.”  Any defense attorney could argue that E.M.’s parents, a drug addict mother and an absent father, fell into this category.  In fact, many criminal defendants meet the “bad parent” requirement for an affluenza diagnosis; they simply lack the necessary affluence.

A 2006 study released by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that twenty-five percent of state prisoners and nineteen percent of jail inmates had parents who had abused alcohol or drugs.  A 2004 BJS study of jails found that nearly forty-four percent of inmates grew up in single-parent homes, almost thirteen percent were raised by grandparents or another guardian, and twelve percent grew up in foster care.  Nineteen percent had fathers who were incarcerated, and seven percent had mothers that had been behind bars.

The district attorney’s office has said that there is no way for them to appeal the sentence.

 Despite his success with the affluenza defense, E.C.’s troubles are not yet over.  E.C. pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, but a verdict has not yet been entered on the assault charges.  The maximum potential sentence for these charges is three years of incarceration in a juvenile detention facility.  District Attorney Joe Shannon has asked that E.C. be sentenced to incarceration.

Even after the criminal case comes to an end, E.C. and his parents may find themselves in the Tarrant County Courthouse once again as they fend off civil lawsuits.  Family members of Hollie and Shelby Boyles, a mother and daughter killed in the accident, are seeking damages in excess of $1 million on behalf of the women’s estates.  Lawsuits have been filed by family members of the other victims, Breanna Mitchell and Brian Jennings, but the amount of damages sought has not been released.

Two of the truck’s passengers also seek compensation.  Jesus Molina and Maria Lemus seek $20 million on behalf of their son, who was thrown from the truck and is no longer able to move or speak due to a severe brain injury he sustained.  Kevin and Alesia McConnell are seeking unspecified damages on behalf of their injured son.  E.C.’s father and his father’s company, which owned the truck, are named defendants in all five lawsuits.  E.C.’s mother is a defendant in three of the five suits.

Despite the tragedy of this case, one positive outcome may exist.  Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has charged the State Senate Committee on Criminal Justice with reviewing intoxication manslaughter sentences in the state.  Dewhurst has not publicly endorsed completely doing away with probation sentences for intoxication manslaughter cases but is instead concerned with insuring that sentences in such cases provide appropriate punishment.  The issue is a personal one for Dewhurst, who lost his father to a drunk driver at age three.

The probation sentence in E.C.’s case will more than likely stand.  The district attorney’s office has determined that there is no practical way for them to appeal the sentence.  Depending on what the Senate committee finds, his sentence may well be the last of its kind in the state.


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About Katherine Doering Custis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (19 Articles)
Katherine Doering Custis served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer during the 2014-2015 school year. Katherine holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Public Administration from North Carolina State University. She has worked with the North Carolina National Guard, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate; North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, Research and Planning Division; City of Raleigh, City Attorney's Office; North Carolina General Assembly, Research Division, and Hon. James C. Hudson, Supervising Judge of Suffolk County (NY) Court. She is a native of Southold, NY and now resides in Knightdale, NC. Katherine graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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