Don’t look now, but the thing we all knew was going to happen, happened. Ethan Couch, most famous for using the “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunk-driving crash, was arrested—again—and charged with probation violation—again.
Texas police arrested the 22-year-old on Thursday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports (h/t the Washington Post). Couch was booked at the Tarrant County Jail, where he is being held without bond for testing positive for THC during a mandatory drug test.
This marks the second time Couch has violated his probation, stemming from a deadly incident in 2013 when the then-16-year-old drove his father’s pickup truck into a group of people helping a stranded motorist. Four people, aged 21 to 52, died as a result. Another person—Couch’s passenger—was left paralyzed.
His defense argued that Couch, who was drunk and had traces of Valium in his blood during the crash, was incapable of telling right from wrong because his parents—who owned a metal business allegedly worth millions—had spoiled him so much, his moral compass had effectively corroded (a psychologist who took the stand for the defense during Couch’s trial referred to the condition as “affluenza”).
A judge ultimately sided with Couch’s lawyers, who argued the teen would be better served by substance abuse treatment than by jail time. Couch, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated, was sentenced to 10 years probation, during which he had to remain drug- and alcohol-free.
But in 2015, Couch—along with his mother—made headlines again. The pair had escaped to Mexico after a video of Couch drinking, a clear violation of his probation, surfaced on social media. After being caught in Puerto Vallarta, Couch was sentenced to two years in prison. His mother, in a case that has yet to go to trial, was charged with hindering apprehension of a felon and money laundering.
When the Couch family first made headlines in 2013, many (rightfully) took the case as a symbol of all the failings of the criminal justice system—mainly, its deep inequities. Couch, white and wealthy, was dealt a compassionate hand by the justice system, even as he was responsible for the death of four people. Whether the judge was swayed by the “affluenza” argument or not, someone looked down at a teenage Ethan Couch and saw what so many do not see when they look at black or brown teenagers: a kid who deserved a chance at rehabilitation.
In 2020, Couch’s case highlights another, murkier kind of failure. America’s criminal justice system, while accruing more technology, resources, and people to fill its prisons, has continued to devolve in its ability to provide any sort of remedy to the people who pass through it. The terms of Couch’s freedom rest on his ability to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Two years in prison, along with more than a year of monitoring via an ankle device, did not make Couch a sober person. That is a fact, though the hows and whys will surely be debated.
As Texas mulls what to do next with Ethan Couch, and as the conversation around decarceration continues to evolve, it’s worth asking ourselves what a just world does with a young man like him. Ethan Couch is as easy a villain as they come—one made all the more abhorrent for all the opportunities money and status afforded him—but it’s worth looking past him to examine the underlying issues of his case. How do we evaluate and treat people who may have substance abuse issues? Are we capable of serving them in any real way? What is fair to Couch’s victims? What is fair to the society he lives in (one that he may presumably return to)? What is fair to the many, many teenagers (plenty of whom do not resemble Ethan Couch in background or status) who have been tried and convicted as adults for the crimes of their youth?
If we believe Ethan Couch to be beyond redemption, it’s first worth asking who deserves it, what it means, and whether we even have a system capable of accomplishing such a thing.