‘Affluenza' Teen's Case Moved to Adult Court

Ethan Couch, now 18, was convicted in 2013 of a drunken-driving crash that killed four people

The case of a North Texas teenager who used an "affluenza" defense in a deadly drunken-driving crash will be transferred from the juvenile to the adult system, a judge ruled Friday.

Ethan Couch, 18, was in court Friday morning in Fort Worth where a judge agreed to transfer his probation to an adult court before his 19th birthday.

Couch, who was convicted in 2013 of a drunken-driving crash that killed four people and was sentenced to 10 years' probation, will remain in custody for now.

New conditions to Couch's probation are expected to be added during a hearing a few days before his 19th birthday, per the judge, so that the probation conditions are in place when he actually turns 19. If he violates that probation he faces up to 10 years in prison for each person killed in the 2013 crash — a total of 40 years.

The Tarrant County District Attorney's office and Couch's attorneys both said they expected this decision would be made, two years after the 10-year probation sentence was handed down.

"We have been waiting for this day for the last two years and we’re very pleased with the court’s ruling," said Riley Shaw, an assistant district attorney.

"We anticipated that a lengthy probation would be appropriate and we were never going to have any objection to this and we still don't," said Scott Brown, Couch's attorney.

Brown said they will not argue against any reasonable conditions of probation placed on Couch by an adult court judge. That includes the possibility of county jail time. Under state law, involuntary manslaughter convictions allow a judge to impose 120 days of jail at the start of probation. That time would start on Couch's 19th birthday in April. Brown said the maximum time the judge can impose is 180 days in jail.

Many people in the community still feel unsatisfied with the sentence, including representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, whose agency investigated the accident.

"What happened today needed to happen and we’re certainly pleased with the direction that it did," Anderson said.
M.A.D.D. has been following the Couch case closely, and several representatives attended his transfer hearing Friday, saying they were supportive of his case moving to adult court.

“With all of the tragedy and heartbreak caused by the Couch case, for the first time, we can see a glimpse of hope from the criminal justice system,” said M.A.D.D. National President Colleen Sheehey-Church. “This is only the first step. The sentence Couch received two years ago was a joke, and it’s more than overdue for the criminal justice system to replace his privilege with prison. We ask that the judge make prison time a condition during Couch’s next hearing.”
Most victims and their families did not elect to speak with reporters following the hearing.
However Alex Lemus, whose brother, Sergio Molina, suffered a traumatic brain injury and has been left partially paralyzed, did speak passionately to reporters about what his brother and family continue to deal with everyday.
"Look at my brother, he’s doing more than a 28-day period or 128 days or whatever. He’s doing more than 10 years on probation," Lemus said. "Ethan Couch, it doesn't matter. They need to pay, fund something, we need some help."
Molina's mother, Maria, brought Sergio to court so that Couch could see the repercussions of his actions first hand. However, Sergio was late and missed the hearing.
Couch was brought to juvenile court by sheriff's deputies from the county's maximum security Lon Evans Corrections Center in downtown Fort Worth.
His detention was transferred there earlier this month by Judge Tim Menikos, the juvenile court judge. Couch is being held in solitary confinement, as Anderson worries about his safety in the general population. 
Couch will continue to be held there, the judge ruled on Friday. Juveniles being kept in custody have a right to a detention hearing every 10 days under the law. Those hearings will continue, however Couch's attorneys have waived them since he returned to Tarrant County.

Couch has been in held in custody since his extradition to the U.S. from Mexico in December. Authorities believe Couch and his mother fled to Mexico after an online video appeared to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. The terms of Couch's probation prohibited him from drinking or leaving Tarrant County and if he were found to be in violation of that probation he could be handed a jail sentence.

NBC 5's Chris Van Horne contributed to this report.

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