During his first appearance in adult court Wednesday, a North Texas teen who used an "affluenza" defense in a deadly drunken driving crash was ordered to spend nearly two years behind bars as part of his probation.
It's not clear if Ethan Couch will actually serve that time.
State District Judge Wayne F. Salvantt initially ordered Couch to be held for an undetermined amount of time while work was done on the case.
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At the end of the hearing, however, Salvant ordered Couch to spend 180 days in county jail for each of the four causes, or charges, transferred to adult court — one for each of the four crash victims. The sentences are to be served consecutively.
"You're not getting out of jail today," Salvant told Couch.
Couch's attorneys, meanwhile, objected to the ruling, saying their client should face only one cause. They argued the judge only had the authority to impose one penalty of 180 days, not four.
"We object to the manner in which this matter was transferred to this court. It was transferred — there was one cause number in the juvenile court, one petition, one judgement adjudicating him delinquent. The state, by their action, without any prior court order or authorization, filed this as four separate matters under the four cause numbers you called out. Just so we're clear, we object to there being four cause numbers," said Reagan Wynn, Couch's attorney. "We are exploring the procedural avenues available to us to figure out what remedy could be available to us to litigate this issue about the four cases. I just wanted to object to it, on the record, so that noone could say we somehow consented to it through our silence."
Prosecutors said four causes were filed because there were four victims and four offenses.
"He's an adult. This myth or this favoritism that he's still a kid is gone. It expired at 12:00 Monday. He's an adult. He needs to be treated like one," said prosecutor, Lloyd Whelchel.
Salvant gave both sides two weeks to change his mind about the terms of Couch's probation and said nothing was set in stone.
It's not clear if Couch would get credit for time that he's spent in jail.
Earlier in the hearing, Salvant said the conditions of Couch's adult probation would be consistent with his juvenile probation — that Couch should commit no offenses in the United States, avoid alcohol, was not allowed to drive, was to submit to community supervision and was to be subjected to visits, at any time, by a probation officer.
Couch's appearance in adult court Wednesday came two days after he turned 19. He was 16 at the time of the 2013 crash — which left four people dead and two severely injured — and was initially sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Following the judge's ruling, attorneys for the victims celebrated the judge's decision. Initially, they believed Couch would only receive 120 days-the mandatory minimum for his probation violation.
"We went into a hearing thinking 120 days was about the best we could possibly hope for, and you walk out of the hearing thinking it looks like he may be spending two years in jail," said an attorney for one victim, Todd Clement. "I think the prosecution is brilliant in that they split the crime into four separate deaths, which we all know occurred. And there should be punishment for each death.”
Couch landed in jail after he fled with his mother, Tonya, to Mexico when a video surfaced online showing Couch apparently at a party where alcohol was being served. Drinking alcohol is a violation of Couch's probation. The two were apprehended in Mexico in December and brought back to Texas in January.
His case was transferred out of the juvenile system in February. Salvant could now order him to spend up to 120 days in jail then finish the rest of his 10 years probation. If Couch were to violate his probation during that time, he could get up to 10 years in prison for each of the four people killed in the crash.
Couch lost control as he drove his family's pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and drank beer that some of them had stolen from a Wal-Mart. He veered into a crowd of people helping the driver of a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.
The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
Couch was found to have had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit for adult drivers.
A defense psychologist, Dr. Dick Miller, testified that Couch had been coddled into a dangerous sense of irresponsibility by his wealthy parents. Miller used the term "affluenza," which has stuck with the case ever since.
Couch's mother, Tonya, is also facing charges after allegedly arranging for the pair to flee to Mexico. She now faces charge of hindering the apprehension of a felon, with the possibility of two to 10 years in prison if convicted. Tonya Couch is currently under house arrest.
Salvant is also the judge in her case.
Judgment for Support
Couch Transferring to Adult Court