Affluenza Boy's Mom May Walk, Even if She Did Help Him Scamper Down to Puerto Vallarta

Let’s catch our breath and count to 10 on that Ethan Couch story. Everybody from the Tarrant County sheriff to the D.A. to the U.S. marshal is on TV talking about what a guilty son of a bitch the little bastard is and how fast they’re going to put him in the slammer, which, of course, we all applaud. But we might all be getting a little out over our skis.

You know already he’s not going to prison, right? Stephen Young had a story here yesterday saying the affluenza boy may get away with running to Mexico because of quirks in the laws governing juvenile probation. And lawyers I spoke with Tuesday say his mother, Tonya, isn't necessarily bound for the pen for helping him, either, despite any wishful thinking on the part of law enforcement.

It doesn’t mean he and his mother aren’t idiots and maybe we should change the word to stupidenza. People I talked to yesterday said the same aspects of the law cited in Young’s piece mean Couch would never have run to Mexico in the first place if he or his mother had the brains God gave them.

Tarrant County law enforcement officials probably were never keen anyway to revoke Couch’s juvenile probation over the infamous Twitter “beer pong” video that may have shown him violating parole by drinking. As Young explained yesterday, the worst penalty a judge could have assessed at that point was a few months in juvie until Couch aged out of his juvenile status on his 19th birthday, April 11, 2016.

Running away — if that’s what he did — was just stupid. Lawyer Toby Shook, now at Shook & Gunter and formerly a top Dallas prosecutor, said, “I guess they panicked and ran when this beer pong video surfaced. But the D.A.s were probably not going to revoke him, because they couldn’t have got him into adult court.

“Nothing was going to happen to him significantly, probably.”

In other words, had Couch’s mother called the family’s criminal lawyers — or, God forbid, had the 18-year-old young man mustered up enough enterprise to call a lawyer himself — Shook says the lawyer would definitely have urged the Couches to stay at home on the sofa. 

So, yes, they were stupid. But if stupid were against the law … you get what I’m saying.

Shook reinforced what Young reported yesterday — that even if Tarrant County now succeeds in getting Couch’s probation transferred to an adult probation, his probation probably can’t be revoked and Couch can’t be sent to prison unless and until he violates the terms of the new adult probation.

Once authorities have him under adult supervision, then obviously they will hover jealously, watching for a chance to put him away, Shook said. But he said, “He’s not going to go to prison over this deal.”

The fact that Tonya Couch and her son have elected to return to the United States voluntarily — they must have called a lawyer finally — may greatly improve Tonya Couch’s self-made bad situation, because there’s no lock-cinch case to prove she was helping her son evade an arrest when she went to Mexico. OK, you and I know … but legally this may be harder to prove than we might assume.

Defense lawyer David Finn of Milner Finn Price told me the district attorney may have a hard time proving she broke any law. “Let’s say, just hypothetically, that mom didn’t know that he was in violation of his probation terms. I don’t know how they would prove that she did know unless Ethan talked. I doubt he would implicate his mom, but who knows? If she doesn’t know or they can’t prove that she did know, then it’s going to be a sticky wicket.”

Shook told me that even before the Tarrant County D.A. tries to prove Tonya Couch is guilty of hindering apprehension — the standing charge against her now — they’ll have to establish that there was an arrest warrant out there for Couch to evade at the time the pair went on their road trip.

“Did they get to Mexico before a warrant was issued?” Shook asked. “Hindering apprehension is helping someone avoid prosecution. It can be broadly interpreted, but if they went to Mexico and he wasn’t wanted at the time, she may make the argument that, ‘I didn’t hinder prosecution.’”

The Ethan Couch affluenza case is now an international story. Public sentiment is passionate, fueled mainly by the perception that a rich kid got away with murder because Texas courts and Texas law enforcement favor rich kids. There are so many unfair assumptions and wrong assertions of fact woven into the saga by now that King Solomon himself probably couldn’t cut to the truth.

Obviously — I know you get this— whenever we see law enforcement officials on TV going on about how they’re going to nail somebody to the wall, especially when they are the elected kind of law enforcement officials like sheriffs and district attorneys, then we know they’ve got their fingers in the wind trying to stay ahead of a political brush fire.

And, hell, we’re the brush fire, most of us. Hell yes, we’re angry. We’re deeply outraged about the God-awful damage this man did to the lives of others and the fact that he seems to have escaped without any real moral consequence, even remorse. His mother damn well could have told him, “I’m not going anywhere with you or helping you in any way, because I refuse to insult the hearts of the family members whose loved ones you took away.”

That would have been decent.

So, no, there’s no decency in this story, and there should be. But the kind of decency we’re yearning for here is the province of morality more than the law. We can’t ask the law to do what it cannot do. If it bends too far toward our passions, then it’s not the law anymore, is it? And I don’t think people are going to get what they want out of the law in this case. We should keep thinking about the message this case speaks to us, sure, but we should also all prepare for some disappointment on the legal front.

Patience. How many days will we have to wait for him to screw up the adult probation? Let us count together on the fingers of our left hands.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze