Last month, after a 16-year-old Texas boy said to be suffering from “affluenza” was sentenced to rehab instead of prison for killing four people and maiming two others in a drunk-driving crash, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto wondered whether an attorney could raise the same kind of defense in this state.
As he discovered, there was nothing to prevent it.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Democrat introduced a bill -- possibly the first in the country -- that would prohibit attorneys from invoking “affluenza” as a defense at trial or as a mitigating factor for sentencing.Gatto knows there is no universally agreed upon definition for the term, which seems more metaphorical than medical. In AB 1508, he defines it as “the notion that an affluent or overly permissive upbringing prevents a defendant from fully understanding the consequences of criminal actions.”
“People often think of the Legislature as too reactive,” Gatto told me Tuesday evening. “Up until last year, for instance, it was not illegal to commit rape if the victim thought the rapist was her husband or boyfriend, and people said how did you let this stay on the books so long? We’re trying to be proactive.”
In the Texas case, the 16-year-old pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing bodily injury after he mowed down a group of Good Samaritans who had stopped to help a disabled vehicle on a suburban Fort Worth street.
Prosecutors had asked for a 20-year jail term, but State District Judge Jean Boyd instead gave the teenager 10 years’ probation. And rather than spend time behind bars, he was allowed to relocate to a posh Newport Beach rehab facility, for which his parents agreed to foot the estimated $450,000 tab.
The case set off a national furor, because it appeared the judge's leniency was inspired by a psychologist who testified the teen suffered from “affluenza.”
“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted the psychologist as saying. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.” (The psychologist, G. Dick Miller, later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper the 16-year-old was a “spoiled brat.”)
“It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the relatively lenient sentence that this gentleman in Texas received will lead attorneys to see this is something to use in their overall tool box,” Gatto said.
USA Today asked psychologists and attorneys whether they anticipated a rash of “affluenza” excuse-making in courts across the land. Many were skeptical the Texas case would instigate a trend, but they also acknowledged that, for many people, the case highlighted the country’s unequal system of justice.
And that, said Gatto, was something he was also aiming to address.
“I view this legislation as a line in the sand about personal responsibility,” Gatto said, “but I also view it as a way to ensure that people who come from privileged backgrounds will not get a different type of justice. The Texas case left a lot of people wondering how someone could kill four people and not do any jail time. I think this will change that landscape a little bit by saying this will not be tolerated in California.”