Ethan Couch, the 18-year-old “affluenza teen” who received probation after pleading guilty to manslaughter for killing four people in a drunken-driving accident in 2013, is headed back to court — and possibly to jail.
Couch was apprehended in Mexico on Monday, and Texas authorities announced plans to charge Couch and his mother in a news conference Tuesday.
Prosecutors said they will seek to reinstate the original jail sentence that Couch was spared under his probation agreement. After pleading guilty to manslaughter and intoxication assault in June 2013, he was facing up to 10 years in jail, but that sentence was suspended under probation.
He could now face that entire sentence — and now in an adult court.
“We no longer have to be concerned about the best interest of the child,” said Tarrant County District Attorney Sharon Wilson, outlining her legal strategy at the Tuesday news conference.
Couch is 18 years old, and Texas generally releases incarcerated juveniles at the age of 19 — a potential punishment that Wilson said was “not enough for taking four lives.” If Couch remains in the juvenile system, he could ultimately spend just a few months in jail. He turns 19 on April 11.
By transferring Couch to the standard adult justice system, prosecutors can try to make him serve out the entire 10-year sentence.
Luke Williams, a former district attorney in Lubbock, Texas, told NBC News a judge should be able to easily reinstate Couch’s original sentence.
“He still has the 10 years he was probated hanging over his head,” Williams said. “A judge can convert that into straight jail time.”
Beyond that punishment for the drunken driving, prosecutors said they are considering new charges for Couch fleeing the country — which he achieved with help of his mom. Prosecutors said they will charge Tonya Couch for helping her son flee.
On Tuesday, prosecutors announced for the first time that they intend to charge her with “hindering apprehension,” a major offense under Texas law. It carries a possible sentence of one to 10 years in prison.
The statute criminalizes any interference with authorities’ attempt to prosecute a suspect or — critically for this case — a child “engaging in delinquent conduct.” That gives authorities a wide berth for pursuing Tonya Couch.
If a judge determines Ethan Couch’s underlying conduct constituted a felony, Tonya Couch could face up to 10 years for hindering apprehension as a third-degree felony. Even if his conduct is not classified as a felony, however, she could still face up to a year in jail for hindering apprehension as a misdemeanor offense.
According to many critics, the potential punishments for the Couch family are late and long overdue. That chorus includes Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, who noted at Tuesday’s news conference that in this case, the justice system didn’t work very well “the first time.”