Category Archives: Criminal law

Affluenza and Why Being Rich May Get You Out of Jail Time After a DWI

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch, drove a pickup truck pickup at up to 70 mph drunk. He caused a crash that killed four pedestrians who were standing at the roadside.

In a case that has made national headlines, a judge sentenced him to 10 years’ probation. The reason? He came from a rich family.


That’s not a totally accurate summary but it’s the way the case has played out in the media. The judge sentenced Couch after hearing a psychologist called by the defense, arguing he suffers from “affluenza,” a condition in which children from rich families behave irresponsibly due to a sense of entitlement.

Before the sentencing the psychologist, Dick G. Miller, testified that the teen’s life could be salvaged with a couple of years of treatment and no contact with his parents.

Miller explained Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called the teen a product of “affluenza,” a condition whereby his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between his behavior and its consequences.

According to the Star Telegram, Miller testified that the teen was never disciplined, and enjoyed freedoms “no young person should have,” including the freedom to drive since the age of 13.

“The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”

Local station KHOU reported that Miller told the hearing Couch’s family “felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.” The defense argued that Couch’s parents were as much to for the crime as their son, and that Couch’s life could be turned around if he cut off all contact with them for a one- to two-year period of intense psychological treatment.

The story has led to much discussion about so-called “affluenza.” In a subsequent story Associated Press quoted experts who said “affluenza,” should not be a criminal defense. The term was first used in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”

Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist it has since been used to describe a condition in which children — usually from richer families — feel a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses fort their bad behavior, and occasionally “dabble in drugs and alcohol.” He said the term was never intended to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.

The case has led to something of a perception that although you may not be able to get away with murder if you are rich, you can get away with intoxication manslaughter – the charge in this case.

Eric Boyles, who lost a wife and daughter in the crash, said told CNN: “There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country.”

However “affluenza”, is less about being rich than about the consequences of a dissolute lifestyle that money may have contributed to. Couch appears to have grown up in an argument dominated household where parenting was poor.  The judge likely factored in factors such as rehabilitation and restitution, when sentencing Couch. The sentence may be as much about not punishing a teen for the inadequacies of his parents as it is about wealth.


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Enforcement of Pot DUIs Remains Hazy for Police Departments

Marijuana is now legal in some U.S. states but the issue of enforcing pot-DUI cases is proving a legal minefield.

Recently the Wall Street Journal reported on how lawmakers are “struggling to create rules” for how to identify drivers who are under the influence of pot.

It seems identifying pot impairment is not as easy or straightforward as testing for alcohol. “There is no broad agreement over what blood level of THC – marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient – impairs driving,” stated the Wall Street Journal.


The breathalyzers that police use to detect alcohol are unable to detect marijuana levels. The issues inherent in pot-DUI cases are important in states that have legalized the use of marijuana.

In Washington State which legalized recreational marijuana use last year, voters decreed that drivers with five nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of blood are driving under the influence.

Colorado has the same limit but provides a chance for drivers to prove they are not impaired while there is a similar test in Montana, which allows medical marijuana use.

R. Andrew Sewell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine told the Wall Street Journal the THC compound may quickly leave the system and regular users of marijuana may be impaired little due to their higher tolerance levels. It raises the potential problem of many impaired drivers being missed and innocent people being arrested, he said.

States are also experiencing something of a headache in sorting out punishments for drivers who are found to be high.

In Washington, for example, drivers convicted of alcohol or drug related DUI offenses must install a device on their car which will prevent it starting if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The problem is the ignition interlock can’t detect marijuana or any other drug for that matter.

The ambiguity of testing for marijuana raises a number of troubling questions. What is, less ambiguous is the potential of drivers under the influence of pot to kill and maim.

At the end of 2012 CBS pointed out how five of the eight deadly car crashes in Santa Cruz County in California involved drivers who had smoked pot before getting into their cars.


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The Tide Turns for Juveniles being Treated as Adults by Courts

Veritas Legal Media – 757-582-1836 –

A bill recently introduced into the North Carolina General Assembly has reopened questions about what age a teenage offender should be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system. It’s a issue that’s occupying legal minds not just in North Carolina but across the nation.

A juvenile justice center in Texas.

North Carolina has been tough on this issue in the past. The state law that treats 16-year-olds as adults is one of the most uncompromising in the nation and has been in effect since 1919.

Rep. Marilyn Avila hopes to soften it in a new bill that would raise the adult criminal offender age from 16 to 18, reported.

“I feel very good about it,” she said. “We’ve just got to do a lot of ground work.”

At present in North Carolina 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are charged as adults for any crime, even for misdemeanors. Only New York’s law is as strict, reported.

Other states may have less stringent laws but exceptions mean teenagers can be tried as adults in many of them.

More than 10 years ago in neighboring Virginia, lawmakers gave more leeway for a juvenile to be tried as an adult. “In many instances, prosecutors can take a teen’s case to adult court even if a juvenile judge rules that the case doesn’t belong there,” the Roanoke Times reported.

Reports since have suggested  treating teens as adults in the criminal justice system does little to deter crime. A state commission looked into whether by sending them to adult prisons, they were more likely to become repeat offenders.

Roanoke lawyer Chris Kowalczuk, who has defended teenagers in murder cases, told the Roanoke Times, the problem with putting teens in an adult prison is clear: “All you’ve succeeded in doing is permanently and irrevocably scarring them for life.”

What’s now happening in North Carolina and elsewhere appears to be a reflection of a retreat from the zero tolerance laws of the 1980s and 1990s and an admission that they may have failed in respect to teens being charged in the adult system.

Over the past four years Mississippi, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois have all passed laws that now send certain 16- and 17-year-old defendants to juvenile courts, instead of automatically sending them to adult courts as was the case in the past.

“What’s pushing these states is the realization that minors don’t think like adults, and that treating them as such is counterproductive,” the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have provided new impetus for the retreat from the tough laws of 20 and 30 years ago. In 2005 the court overturned a death penalty ruling for youths under 18. In 2010 the court banned life-without-parole for under 18s who are convicted of crimes short of murder.

Justice Anthony Kennedy referred recently to “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”

If North Carolina also relaxes its law on the age an offender can be tried as an adult, it will be a clear signal that the tide has turned.

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Identity Theft – a Threat Close to Home

In this article in the Daily Press in 2008, I explored the growing problem of identity theft.

David Macaulay, The Daily Press, June 29, 2008

HAMPTON — The fast-growing crime of identity theft conjures up notions of shadowy strangers diving into dumpsters to find personal information.

But for many victims, the threat is closer to home.

Identity theft is a lot more subtle than this

It often involves family members, friends, colleagues and partners, according to police.

Hampton police arrested 35-year-old Gladys Arrizza this month and charged her with 11 counts of identity fraud. They claim she applied for credit cards on the Internet under her ex-boyfriend’s name, running up thousands of dollars of debt.

“She started using two of his credit cards,” said Detective Randy Mayer of the Hampton police. “When he realized that, he kicked her out of the house and split off with her.”

About six months later, when he applied for credit, the man checked his credit report and realized there were 11 additional credit cards that had been opened in his name without his knowledge, police say.

More than $13,000 had been charged to his cards, Mayer said.

Arrizza was charged with 11 counts of identity theft/fraud, 11 counts of credit card fraud and 11 counts of obtaining goods using stolen credit cards.

Mayer said Arrizza opened up a post office box to keep the bills from being sent to her ex-boyfriend and made minimum payments by opening up new credit cards and transferring the money to pay old debts.

Mayer said the Internet has made it easier to steal someone else’s identity.

“It’s becoming a really huge problem the way the economy is,” Mayer said. “What’s really surprising to me is the amount of close friends and relatives that are doing it. That’s probably because it’s easier to obtain the information.

“A lot of my cases are even grandchildren or aunts and uncles.”

He said the first place the thieves are using stolen cards is at gas stations, where they fill up on expensive fuel.

“That’s huge. There are embezzlements where employees have company credit cards. They are using them to fill up their own gas tanks. We are seeing a rash of that,” Mayer said.

Newport News police also have seen a large increase in identity theft reports over the last decade, although they don’t break down fraud cases as specifically as Hampton.

“We are extremely busy. We are inundated with reports,” said Newport News Detective Lorain Crain, who is also on the Hampton Roads Regional Crime Task Force.

Crain said that while she does see some “black sheep” cases where someone may steal a family member’s identity, most of her cases involve suspects who are not known to the victim.

She said many identity fraud cases are prosecuted through the federal system – if they are serious enough – because more stringent sentences are usually passed down.

And although there have been instances of thieves digging through trash, a practice that is legal under a Supreme Court decision of 1988, most identity thefts are crimes of opportunity.

“Most people are too lazy to dig through trash,” said Hampton police spokeswoman Allison Good.

Mayer said that in the 14 years he has dealt with identity theft, it has grown as a crime.

“Dealing specifically with it now it seems overwhelming,” he said.

Over the past three years, Hampton police have dealt with more than 1,000 cases of identity theft or fraud.

There were 442 reports in 2006, 416 in 2007, and 218 reports have been made so far this year.

“It seems like we might see a slight increase on last year,” said Good.

Along with the ease of the Internet, police say new technology also makes it easier to create fraudulent checks.

Hampton and Newport News detectives are currently working a large fraudulent-check case that has already led to seven arrests in the last month.

Mayer said checks have been made with a company logo and the names of the suspects’ friends are printed on them. The suspects then use their own identification to cash them.

“The checks look very real. They have also gone out and stolen other people’s IDs. Then they use those IDs to cash these checks. They print the name on the check. When I try to pull up the name on the check it comes back to the victim who was at a shopping center,” Mayer said.

Angela Blythe, 23, of Roanoke Avenue in Newport News, was arrested on June 16 and charged with two counts of identity fraud and obtaining money by false pretenses for her alleged involvement in the check scam.

Blythe is accused of stealing a friend’s ID. And when she was arrested, Mayer said, Blythe looked a lot like the victim looked on her identification.


* Run regular credit checks. They can be accessed via

* Shred all documents that you intend to discard.

* Never give information in response to e-mails supposedly from financial institutions that ask for personal information.

* Don’t write your bank account PIN on paper.

* Don’t carry your Social Security number on you.

* Don’t leave personal documents in your car.

* Don’t leave personal items in a handbag in a shopping cart unattended.

* If you are a victim of identity theft, call the credit company immediately to report it.

* Keep a list of credit card companies you have accounts with in case your cards are stolen.

Source: Hampton Police Division

Veritas legal media – 757-582-1836,

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