A Texas teenager who used an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving wreck is set to appear in court for a hearing over whether his case should be transferred to the adult system.
Ethan Couch, 18, is due in court Friday in Fort Worth. He could face up to 120 days in jail if sentenced to adult probation, but if his case stays in the juvenile system, he could eventually face a decade in adult prison.
Authorities say he and his mother fled the U.S. in December, as Texas prosecutors investigated whether he violated his probation in the 2013 wreck that killed four people.
Couch was booked in the Tarrant County Jail earlier this month after being deported from Mexico in late January.
Here’s a look at what could develop in the coming days and weeks:
ADULT COURT OUTLOOK
Couch’s attorney, Scott Brown, has said he doesn’t plan to fight transferring the case to adult court. Although Brown won’t detail what he plans to argue at Friday’s hearing, the punishment could be greater if the judge were to keep the case in the juvenile system.
Staying in juvenile court could set off a series of hearings to determine if Couch has violated his existing probation, which potentially could lead to 10 years in adult prison when Couch ages out of the juvenile system at 19.
If Couch’s case is moved to adult court, the judge could order him to spend up to 120 days in jail as part of an adult sentence related to the 2013 drunken-driving crash, then finish the remainder of his 10-year probation without additional time behind bars. If he violates his adult probation during that time, he could get up to 10 years in prison for each of the four people killed in the wreck.
JUVENILE COURT OUTLOOK
If the judge declines to transfer Couch’s case to the adult system, prosecutors could ask for a separate hearing to determine whether Couch violated his probation by going to Mexico or possibly drinking alcohol. A video surfaced in December that appeared to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. Couch and his mother are believed to have fled to Mexico shortly thereafter.
If a juvenile judge rules Couch didn’t violate terms of his probation, Couch would go free after the hearing and remain on probation until his sentence expires on his 19th birthday in April.
If Couch is found to have violated probation, the judge could either sentence him to a state facility operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department or leave him on juvenile probation until he turns 19. If Couch is sentenced to the state facility, a judge would hold another hearing before his birthday to determine whether to transfer him to adult prison for up to 10 years or to adult parole.
NEXT STEPS FOR TONYA COUCH
Couch’s mother, Tonya, is on house arrest at her other son’s home after she was charged with helping Ethan flee to Mexico as authorities investigated whether he violated terms of his probation. The 48-year-old faces between two and 10 years in prison if convicted of hindering the apprehension of a felon.
Tonya and Ethan Couch were apprehended in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta on Dec. 28, after a call for pizza delivery tipped off authorities to their whereabouts. Tonya Couch was deported in December, and then released on bond after being fitted with an electronic ankle GPS monitor.
The first of five court dates, during which a judge will check that Tonya Couch is abiding by the terms of her bond, has not been scheduled. Five court settings must take place before the trial begins unless she makes a plea, according to Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Samantha Jordan. Jordan declined to comment on the prosecution’s strategy.
Tonya Couch’s attorney, Stephanie Patten, did not return calls seeking comment on the case. Patten has previously said her client did not break any state laws.
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