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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – The “affluenza” teen saga returned to a North Texas courtroom this morning. Ethan Couch may still not be in the U.S. but his case was scheduled to be heard by a Fort Worth judge.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson was set to go before Judge Timothy Menikos to ask that Ethan’s probation case be moved from juvenile to adult court, but it never happened.
Ethan’s attorneys had argued the hearing shouldn’t be taking place, since their teenage client could not be present for it. Ethan remains in a holding facility in Mexico. He fled to the country with his mother, Tonya, in late November after a video surfaced showing what appeared to be him at a party where people were drinking alcohol. An arrest warrant was issued for the teen after his probation officer couldn’t locate or make contact with him.
But defense attorneys arguments were irrelevant, because Judge Menikos recessed the hearing after only a few minutes. The Judge ruled that there was nothing in the court file, showing that either of Ethan’s parents had officially been notified about the hearing. Prosecutors claimed they sent notice, but that probation officer’s never served the papaerwork.
One of Ethan’s attorneys, Scott Brown, said they are just working to protect the teenager’s rights. “Our objectives, as always, are to make sure that our clients rights are protected — wherever they are. So, that’s why the family has contacted the Mexican attorney, certainly with our consent. It’s a good idea. If your loved one was caught in Mexico, was arrested in Mexico, detained in Mexico, it would be a good idea to make sure their rights were protected.”
Even if Ethan were in the county, to answer for skipping out on probation, the maximum punishment he could receive would be to serve juvenile detention until his 19th birthday in April. Prosecutors were hoping this morning’s hearing would have change that. But prosecutors say what’s important is by starting the hearing today they will retain jurisdiction. This means that even if Ethan ‘ages out’ of the juvenile system, because deportation efforts haven’t been completed by his birthday, the case to transfer him to adult court will still be heard.
The hearing to transfer Ethan’s probation case from juvenile to adult court has been rescheduled for February 19.
Ethan’s case remains in juvenile court because he was only 16-years-old when he drove drunk and crashed into a disabled SUV parked on the side of the road. The crash killed four people and injured several others.
After pleading guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury, Ethan was sentenced to 10 years probation.
The case sparked national outrage when Ethan’s lawyers claimed the teen suffered from “affluenza” – a condition that left him with an irresponsible attitude because his rich parents never set limits for him.
As for the probation violation punishment allowed by Texas law, DA Wilson previously said, “I wish the system were different. However our system of law in Texas means that the best result in this case is going to be to get him, in our opinion, into the adult court.” If that happens Ethan would still only face an additional 120 days in jail. Harsher punishment would only happen if he broke the rules again.
Tarrant County authorities had support when they went before the judge today. Representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) were at the hearing. Before the court proceedings began, MADD North Texas Executive Director Jason Derscheid sent the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office a petition with more than 43,000 signatures, demanding Ethan’s case be moved to adult court.
“I think the petition just shows the public sentiment on the fact of what happened is unacceptable and he needs to be held accountable,” he said. “It won’t be presented to the judge. It is inadmissible, but what it is it’s a collection of the public sentiment regarding this case.”
The relatives of some of the victims were in court this morning. Sergio Molina was paralyzed in the drunk driving crash caused by Ethan in 2013. His brother, Alex, said he doesn’t care how long the legal process takes – he will be there to see it through.
“I’m not a judge. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a victim,” he said. “I’m just here applying pressure… you see it’s being unraveled. You’ve see what’s going on. I can’t do anything. It’s out of my hands.”
MADD officials said they hope the court decision made concerning Ethan and the #FightAffluenza petition will prevent further injustices from happening. “What we’d like to see is a national conversation about the complacency with drunk driving today and how it’s not acceptable,” Derscheid explained. “This is a very high-profile case. We’ve had a lot of victims that have reached out to us who’ve had similar situations — where they’ve lost loved ones and their offenders received a slap on the wrist.”
If Ethan’s case is removed from juvenile court it isn’t exactly clear when enforcement in adult court would take effect. Ethan was granted a stay in his deportation case while the legal process in Mexico runs its course. There’s no word yet on when he will be returned to Texas.
Tonya Couch was deported back to the U.S. and was recently released on $75,000 bond and is on house arrest here in North Texas. Attorneys for Ethan say they are also looking into whether the now 18-year-old was forced togo to Mexico against his will. After today’s hearing Brown said that whether his client “was voluntarily or involuntarily taken to Mexico is something that is still being investigated.”
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