Affluenza case: what transfer to adult court would mean for Ethan Couch

Ethan Couch, the teenager whose defense claimed his wealthy parents didn't teach him right from wrong, now faces a hearing on whether or not he'll be transferred to the adult system.

LM Otero/AP/File
Tarrant County sheriff deputy Brian Nickelson stands guard outside the juvenile court where Ethan Couch has a detention hearing in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 29. The Texas teenager who used an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck, returns to court on Friday for a hearing on whether or not he'll be transferred to the adult system.

The Texas teenager who evoked the so-called affluenza defense in a fatal drunk driving crash may soon move to adult court.

Eighteen-year-old Ethan Couch is due in court on Friday for a hearing that would determine whether the pending trial relating to possible probation violations will be moved to the adult system or stay in juvenile court. Ironically, the juvenile system may end up holding the greater punishment.

If Mr. Couch is sentenced to adult probation, he would face up to 120 days in jail. But if his case stays in the juvenile court, he could eventually face up to a decade in adult prison, once he ages out of the system.

Authorities in Texas are looking into whether Couch violated the terms of his probation in the 2013 drunk-driving case that killed four people and injured nine others. During trial, his attorneys argued that he had grown up too wealthy and privileged to comprehend right from wrong. A doctor testifying for the defense referred to the circumstance as "affluenza."

In late 2015, a video surfaced on social media that appeared to show Couch at a party where alcohol was being consumed. That may have violated the conditions of his probation, but while authorities in Texas were investigating the matter, Couch and his mother fled the United States for Mexico, where they were later apprehended.

If the case is moved to the adult system, he could face up to 120 days in jail, which would be part of an adult sentence for the 2013 drunk-driving crash. He would then also finish the remainder of the 10-year probation handed down in 2013. If he violates his probation during that time, he could face an even heftier punishment: 10 years in prison for each of the four people who were killed in the crash. That jail time would be a condition of his adult probation.

The outlook on the juvenile court is mixed. It depends on two factors: whether Couch will be transferred to the adult system, and whether he was found in violation of his probation for attending a party with alcohol present and then fleeing to Mexico with his mother. If the judge decides to not transfer Couch to the adult system and determines he is not in violation of his probation, Couch is pretty much off the hook. He would go free after Friday’s hearing and then remain on probation until his sentence expires after his 19th birthday.

But if Couch did, in fact, violate the terms of his probation, he could be moved to a state facility, where the terms would then be much sharper. He could face another hearing before his probation expires that may mean he could face a decade of adult prison or adult parole.

Couch’s mother, Tonya is currently on house arrest and faces up to ten years in prison for helping her son flee to Mexico. She has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon.

In an interview with Reuters, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said he does not expect Couch to be released on Friday.

"But you never know. That is not my call to make," he said.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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