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Prosecutors say punishment of captured 'affluenza' teen Ethan Couch poses dilemma

By Amy R. Connolly, Andrew V. Pestano and Doug G. Ware   |   Dec. 29, 2015 at 6:06 PM

FORT WORTH, Texas, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- The capture and pending punishment of "affluenza" teen Ethan Couch -- who caused a drunk driving crash that killed four people in Texas two and-a-half years ago -- is fraught with tough questions, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Couch and his mother, Tonya, were captured in western Mexico following a two-week search by authorities. Police said the Couches fled the United States to avoid a probation hearing for the 18-year-old man, stemming from the July 2013 crash.

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"Couch continues to make a mockery of the system," said Bill Berenson, attorney for Sergio Molina, who suffered brain and spinal cord damage in the 2013 crash.

After the pair's capture Monday in the Pacific resort town of Puerto Vallarta, prosecutors said Tuesday they are unsure of the extent to which they may be punished -- owing to the complexities of the juvenile and adult court systems in Texas that officials now find themselves navigating.

Because Couch committed the offense when he was 16, prosecutors say they are severely limited in the punishment they can dole out. Under the terms of his probation related to his juvenile case, Couch now only faces mild repercussions.

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a news conference Tuesday that her office faces a dilemma in this case.

Prosecutors intend to transfer the case to adult court, but punishment options there are just as limited as an adult court could not punish Couch for things he did as a juvenile. And because he has no adult convictions, Couch would face only a maximum of 120 days in jail.

Conversely, the most a juvenile court could do is order Couch be imprisoned until he reaches the age of 19, which sets his release for April 11 -- causing more frustration for critics who have labeled him as the "affluenza teen" because of financial privilege.

Further, prosecutors can only punish Couch using the framework of what has already happened in juvenile court. Pursuing new legal recourse for something he's already being punished for violates "double jeopardy" laws, experts say.

"The legal issue is, can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time," former Florida judge Larry Seidlin said. "It's a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We have already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain."

Meanwhile, Tonya Couch could end up in jail longer than her son. Facing charges of hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, she would face up to 10 years in jail, if convicted.

"I think that she deserves to be incarcerated," Wilson said.

Authorities said Couch dyed his hair in an attempt to hide while in Mexico. An official told CNN Tuesday that U.S. Marshals tracked him to Puerto Vallarta by tracing his cellphone usage. He and his mother are expected to be returned to Texas to face charges, but it's unclear exactly when that might happen.

The lawyers for Couch have used his privileged upbringing as a successful court defense to keep him out of jail, saying he was too wealthy to understand the consequences of drunk driving -- an argument authorities dismiss out of hand.

"Go talk to those four families who lost loved ones and who spent Christmas without their loved ones because he decided to drink three times the legal limit of alcohol and drive recklessly and kill four innocent people," Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said. "The details of the crime, and then the lack of justice in the sentence, outraged people in this area in a way that I haven't ever seen people outraged. There was a strong, strong public demand for him to be brought to justice."

Despite the limited prospects, authorities hope the Mexico episode will help make up for what most considered an incredibly lenient punishment two years ago.

"The juvenile sentence is not sufficient," Tarrant County District Attorney spokesman Sam Jordan said. "We are looking for more accountability in the adult court."

"I don't think initially justice was served," Anderson said. "We hope now justice will be served."

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