FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – It was decision day for ‘affluenza’ teen Ethan Couch, and the judge decided to move his probation to adult court after his next birthday. Prosecutors had been pushing for this hearing for months. If the judge did not move Couch’s case from juvenile to adult court, he would simply age out of the system when he turns 19 years old on April 11.
That would have essentially put an end to Couch’s probation. However, attorneys on both sides of the case expected to see the probation transferred. Couch is already in isolation at Tarrant County’s adult jail. He will remain there until his 19th birthday, and then see the rest of his probation moved to the adult court.
Couch’s attorney will not fight the move, as there are no legal grounds to appeal. Couch left the courthouse just after the judge announced the decision, now clean shaven, wearing a red jumpsuit and handcuffs. He made no comment.
The teen will soon serve the remainder of his 10-year probation under the jurisdiction of the adult system. His new conditions will be determined at a later date, just before the transfer on his birthday. Those conditions will likely be more strict than what he had faced before, with increased monitoring and harsher consequences for violating the terms.
The new conditions could include a GPS ankle monitor, or even alcohol monitoring and testing at his home. Prosecutors could also seek some amount of prison time, likely between 120 and 180 days. Defense attorney Scott Brown said, “I don’t anticipate that we will have any issue with reasonable probation conditions. If, at some point, we feel like they’re unreasonable — and we have a legal argument — then, yes, we will cotninue to represent Ethan and do everyhting that’s in his best interest.”
North Texas lawyer Scott Palmer has experience working with vehicular manslaughter cases. He said that, if Couch messes up in the adult system, he would likely go to prison. “Tarrant County’s probation is extremely strict. They don’t give many people much leeway, especially alcohol-related incidents such as this,” Palmer said. “They have to be strictly compliant.”
After a hearing in Tarrant County last month, prosecutor Richard Halpert stated, “Our goal is to put him into the adult system and wait for him to do what I believe he will do, at which time we will seek to revoke him.”
“If he messes up even one of these conditions,” Palmer said, “I doubt the judge will have much sympathy for him and he could be facing the entire 10 years. Five years hard, then eligible for parole, which he may not get.”
Brown had said, “We are optimistic that Ethan can complete, and successfully complete, his probation once he’s transferred to adult court.”
The family of some of the victims who died in Couch’s 2013 drunk driving crash were in the courtroom for the Friday morning hearing, as was Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group has been pushing for Couch to be treated like an adult. “Couch has done nothing but show a blatant disregard for the law since day one,” Colleen Sheehey-Church of MADD said last month.
After the Friday morning hearing, Sheehey-Church added, “Transferring Ethan Couch to adult court was pivotal, and the right thing to do.”
“I believe now, with what Ethan Couch has seen [in jail], he has a real sense of what that world is like,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Friday.
Couch was 16 years old when that fatal crash took place. He was intoxicated and speeding near Fort Worth when he ran into a disabled SUV. Four people died and others were injured. But the teen was only sentenced to probation.
Defense lawyers for Couch successfully argued that he was coddled by wealthy parents and lacked a sense of responsibility for his actions. An expert coined the term ‘affluenza’ for this unofficial condition, but the case and ruling were widely ridiculed by the community.
Video surfaced online last year that appeared to show Couch in violation of his probation. While prosecutors investigated that video, law enforcement officials believe that Couch and his mother fled to Mexico. After an FBI manhunt, they were located in Puerto Vallarta. The teen’s hair had been dyed jet black, as opposed to his normal blonde look. Couch was returned to Tarrant County late last month and moved to adult jail. Anderson said that Couch is an obvious flight risk.
Couch’s mother, meanwhile, was fitted with a GPS monitor and is now under house arrest after posting bond. Tonya Couch is charged with hindering the apprehension of a felon. Couch’s father and half-brother were present in the courtroom on Friday.
“We’ve said repeatedly, we don’t think like justice was served in this case,” said Anderson after the Friday hearing. “Every step we can take in this direction to make him more accountable, make him more responsible for what he’s done, we think that’s a step in the right direction.”