EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, December 16, 2013

Affluenza Season: Considering the Role That Socioeconomic Status Should Play in Sentencing Decisions

The has been a nationwide reaction to the prosecution of 16 year-old Ethan Couch in Texas. The teen was convicted of vehicular manslaughter due to drink driving, meaning that he could have been given a sentence of up to 20 years incaraceration and a fine of up to $10,000. Instead, Couch was given 10 years probation. Why? Couch's lawyer presented evidence during the sentencing phase of trial that Couch suffers from "affluenza."

The term "affluenza" was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O'Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book "The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence." It's since been used to describe a condition in which children - generally from richer families - have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family wealth advising.

The question in the wake of the Couch case is thus whether it is proper to use a defendant's socioeconomic status to decrease his criminal penalty. Today, I'm going to try to answer that question by looking at whether courts can use a defendant's socioeconomic status to increase his criminal penalty.

Let's look at three cases from the Fifth Circuit, the federal district that covers Texas and several other states. Now, these are all federal cases while Couch was a state case, but I'm not sure why the analysis should be much different.

First, in United States v. Stout, 32 F.3d 901 (5th Cir. 1994), the court increased the defendant's punishment for failing to file a timely tax return in part due to the fact tha he had "maintained an excessive lifestyle," The Fifth Circuit reversed, concluding that "the court justified its reasons, in part, on Stout's socioeconomic status. We have vacated criminal sentences on the ground that the sentencing court considered the defendant's socioeconomic status."

Second, in United States v. Hatchett, 923 F.2d 369 (5th Cir. 1991), the court increased the punishments for two defendants convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances after telling the defendants the following:

People who have had your kind of opportunities, or at least the option of doing various things with their lives who don't exist, come out of a poverty stricken background, who have some education and whose intelligence is as high as yours is, I think, have a greater responsibility to yourself and to your community than some of the other folks I see here—probably eighty percent of them—who haven't had much of a chance in their life from the day they were born.  

And I try to impress upon the community, which is one of the reasons for sentencing, that those folks who have had advantages and should know better and still don't conform their conduct to the law are going to be punished perhaps to a greater extent in this court than those who had some mitigating circumstances based upon a lack of options as to what they can do with their lives.

Again, the Fifth Circuit reversed, concluding that "it is clear that the enabling legislation and the Guidelines do not permit consideration of a defendant's socioeconomic status in sentencing."

Third, in United States v. Burch, 873 F.2d 765 (5th Cir. 1989), the court increased the punishment of a defendant convicted of conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute in part because he was “one of the top persons, scholastically speaking,” was a “gifted, talented individual,” and because “the system [had] not been harsh with [him].” The Fifth Circuit again reversed, concluding that

It is clear from these stated reasons that the court was sentencing Burch based upon his education and his socio-economic status. The court apparently reasoned that an individual who possessed ample ability and opportunity to pursue an education and career yet chose to commit criminal acts should be dealt with more harshly than a criminal who had been denied such advantages. The guidelines do not permit such distinctions.

Given these three cases and especially Hatchett, does it make sense for courts to use socioeconomic statuts to decrease a defendant's punishment?



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For an opposing analysis, finding a defendant's wealth relevant as it revealed an impure motive in committing his crimes, see United States v. VandeBrake, 679 F.3d 1030, 1034 (8th Cir. Iowa 2012).

Posted by: Kevin | Dec 17, 2013 8:25:46 AM

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