FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — An argument raised Tuesday by lawyers for a Texas teenager known for using an “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck — that he may have been taken to Mexico against his will — is unlikely to help his case, outside juvenile defense attorneys said.
And even if a judge agrees that Ethan Couch was forced to flee to Mexico, he could still be locked up if the judge determines he violated probation by attending a party where people were drinking.
Attorneys for Couch said the 18-year-old is dropping his deportation fight in Mexico as they investigate whether he fled there or was brought against his wishes. He was arrested there with his mother, who is now charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon. She was returned to the U.S. quickly, but Couch won a delay based on a constitutional appeal that normally leads to a lengthy trial process.
Authorities allege the two crossed into Mexico in December, as Texas prosecutors investigated whether Couch violated his probation in the 2013 drunken-driving case. His attorney, Scott Brown, said Tuesday that whether his client “was voluntarily or involuntarily taken to Mexico is something that is still being investigated.”
That comment came after a brief hearing in juvenile court scheduled to determine whether Couch, who is being held at a Mexico City detention facility, violated his probation and if the case should be transferred to adult court. But the judge cut the hearing short after Couch’s attorneys said his parents weren’t properly notified. Another hearing was set for Feb. 19.
Dallas attorney Peter Schulte said the new defense argument might be related to the “affluenza” claim that Couch was coddled into a sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents. The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its use drew widespread derision.
The latest argument, Schulte said, could be “some extension of affluenza, that he can’t make decisions on his own and any time mommy says to do something he does it.”
But the argument is unlikely to impress a judge because of Couch’s age, Schulte said.
Attorney Seth Fuller of Denton, Texas, said Couch’s defenses are limited to claiming he didn’t realize he was violating probation by going to Mexico or that he went there involuntarily.
“This is just grasping at straws,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t seem like a good defense, but it is one of the few available.”
Neither Schulte nor Fuller is involved in Couch’s case.
The latest strategy, though, could affect Couch’s mother.
If Ethan Couch can prove he was taken against his will, Tonya Couch can be charged with kidnapping. Tarrant County district attorney spokeswoman Samantha Jordan said there would have to be “adequate proof” that Tonya Couch forced her son to go to Mexico before prosecutors brought additional charges against her. “We’d have to see the evidence,” she said.
Whether Couch is able to prove that he was taken to Mexico against his wishes will not affect prosecutors’ efforts to transfer his case to the adult system, Jordan added.
Attorneys for Tonya Couch declined to comment Tuesday. The 48-year-old was released on bond last week in Texas after she was brought back from Mexico.
Brown, Ethan Couch’s U.S. lawyer, said “documents have been filed to release the injunction” that objected to his return, but did not say how long the process would take.
Immigration and federal courts officials in Mexico said they didn’t have any information indicating Couch was dropping his deportation fight. Couch’s lawyer in Mexico didn’t return messages, and U.S. Marshals spokesman Trent Touchstone said he had no information about the issue.
The hearing to determine whether Couch’s case is transferred to the adult system can take place without him.
If his case remains in the juvenile system, he could be put in a juvenile detention center until he turns 19 in April, when his record could be expunged.
He was 16 at the time of the crash. Investigators said Couch was driving at three times the legal intoxication limit for adults when he crashed a pickup truck into a crowd of people trying to help a stranded motorist, killing four. A juvenile court judge sentenced Couch to 10 years’ probation, outraging prosecutors who wanted him to face detention time.
If his case is transferred to the adult system, Couch would face up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years’ probation. If he violates probation, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson has said.
“He’s trying to avoid all punishment,” Fuller said.