Remember the “affluenza” kid? His name is Ethan Couch and the teenager went on an alcohol-fueled joyride after a party in the mansion his parents had bought for him. The joyride resulted in the death of 4 people and the injury of multiple others as alcohol-fueled joyrides are wont to do. Except Couch avoided the fate of pretty much any other person who might kill 4 people on the back of a clinical psychologist’s expert opinion that Couch suffered from a mental condition that he coined as “affluenza” — basically as a rich, privileged tool, the kid couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.
Most people found this ridiculous. Elie went so far as to call for the parents to be jailed. Which has a certain Nancy Grace-style emotional appeal, but also kind of feeds the argument that this kid himself should continue to remain shielded from the consequences of his actions. It also fans the flames of the same parent-policing logic that ends with people getting arrested for letting their kids play outside. But in any event, the fact that a juvenile system judge with a reputation for harsh punishments for poor, black kids — she sent a 14-year-old black kid to jail for 10 years for punching a kid who fell and hit his head resulting in his death — sent a 16-year-old, rich, white kid willfully driving drunk to a country club rehab facility — conveniently paid for mostly by taxpayers — exposed everything wrong with privilege in America.
Now the case raises another debate about privilege. One of the victims who survived the accident is suing and wants to see exactly how this clinical psychologist came to his groundbreaking diagnosis that rich kids don’t have to go to jail, and Couch’s lawyers are fighting that disclosure tooth and nail….
While the Couch family has settled with most of the victims in this matter, one boy who was injured that night is continuing to pursue his claims in a civil action. Recently, Judge R.H. Wallace Jr. ruled that the records of clinical psychologist Dr. Dick Miller — the “affluenza” genius — must be turned over to the plaintiff on the grounds that any privileges attached to the Dr. Miller’s testimony were waived when he testified at the media circus of a juvenile proceeding. In response, Couch’s lawyers lodged a writ of mandamus seeking an emergency stay of the disclosure. Because, wow, you do not want a jury to hear this tripe.
At every stage of the Couch filing, the legal arguments are technically correct, just belied by the reality of how this case went down.
Juvenile justice records are staunchly protected in Texas, which makes sense. Juvenile proceedings are kept confidential to protect the juvenile accused from stigmatization as a criminal. That said, once the state lets the media turn a juvenile proceeding into a circus, it’s hard to argue that there’s much continuing state interest in protecting confidentiality, but that doesn’t stop Couch’s lawyers from arguing that confidentiality must be preserved or else it would have a chilling effect on inviting the media to publicly broadcast details of juvenile proceedings. Huh?
Beyond the standard protections attached to juvenile proceedings, Couch’s attorneys have good arguments for why records reflecting Dr. Miller’s communication with the lawyers would be subject to privilege because he was hired to act as a consultant for the juvenile proceeding. But when the therapist testified about his diagnosis and then went on TV in the midst of a publicity storm to talk about it, sanctimonious claims that the mental health privilege must be preserved fringe on laughable. Oh, we can’t have people prying into the patient-therapist relationship… that we blasted across TV and radio.
Most entertaining is the argument that the diagnosis lacks relevance. As the brief says, all that’s relevant is whether Ethan Couch was reckless (i.e., impaired) at the time of the accident. “Affluenza” has no bearing on this question, and therefore isn’t subject to the relevance exception to the mental health privilege. I guess when it comes to the civil case they won’t be asserting “affluenza” shields Ethan from his responsibility now that the only thing on the line is daddy’s cash.
The appellate court swiftly granted the emergency stay.
If you want to read the full motion, it’s on the next page. The court’s opinion granting the emergency stay follows another page later.