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The “Affluenza” Defense in Criminal Proceedings

Clarkston Legal June 27, 2017

Much has been made of the so-called “Affluenza Defense” and an apparent disparity of accountability between the rich and the poor. The case of a teenager whose reckless driving resulted in the deaths of four people made national headlines, not simply because of the senselessness and heinous nature of the crime, but because his lawyer argued, to the anger of many, that his lack of foresight should be considered a mitigating circumstance given the fact that he grew up rich and thus did not realize the consequences of his actions.

This is known as a “diminished capacity” defense, in many instances the same as pleading insanity or battered wife syndrome. The defense argues that because this young man led a life of pampered wealth, he wasn’t privy to the machinations of the real world where actions do indeed have consequences.

His light sentence of being forced into an expensive rehab clinic left many outraged. They argued that the judge in this case allowed him off scot free, which is precisely what his parents had allegedly done throughout the course of his life. They argued it was one more free pass in a lifetime of free passes.

“What’s uniquely troubling about this case is that it doesn’t apply evenly to those who aren’t ultra-rich,” says one Waterford & Clarkston attorney who works with other lawyers in DUI cases. “Here you have an example of a troubled young man who drove under the influence of alcohol and killed four people. Four lives were taken that day, and even as a criminal defense attorney, I find the use of a diminished capacity defense in this instance extremely troubling and the reason for this is that it reduces confidence in our justice system. The same rules that apply to the poor aren’t being applied to rich.”

“While the backlash over the judge’s ruling sparked outrage nationwide, it seems to have flown under the radar that this individual was sentenced to two years prison time for violating his probation,” says another criminal defense attorney from Waterford & Clarkston. “While I agree that the ruling was somewhat bizarre in the context of four deaths, and a poor or middle class defendant would have received a much stiffer sentence, I also believe that the judge gave him an opportunity to recognize that what he did was wrong, and he failed that test, and is now being held accountable.”

“‘Affluenza’ is not a recognized psychiatric diagnosis,” says one prosecuting attorney from Waterford & Clarkston. “Diminished capacity is used for psychiatric diagnoses, like schizophrenia or psychotic disorders. In rare cases for battered wives, but we’ve never seen a diminished capacity defense for someone who was just too rich. That’s absurd.”

We have seen a lot over here at Clarkston Legal. This affluenza defense, however, is a crowning travesty.