NEW: Sheriff: "They made a conscious decision to run, and they did"
Official: Ethan Couch and his mother are expected to return to U.S. on Wednesday
They were found inside an apartment building in Puerto Vallarta, officials say
Will Ethan Couch, the “affluenza” teen, get off lightly again?
Couch drew the ire of many after a judge sentenced the then 16-year-old to 10 years of probation for a 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.
Those who felt the sentence too lenient felt validated when Couch violated his probation and fled. He was detained Monday in Mexico.
But if you are expecting a judge to throw the book at him, be warned that the book might not be too heavy.
As of now, the most severe punishment Couch could face is 120 days in adult jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a press conference Tuesday.
The district attorney explained the dilemma she faces:
• Ethan Couch was sentenced as a juvenile and violated his probation as ordered by the juvenile court system.
• Under Texas law, Couch, now 18, would be punished for his violation in the juvenile system.
• The maximum sentence that a juvenile judge can dish out for a violation of his juvenile probation is imprisonment in a juvenile facility until Couch turns 19, which is April 11, 2016.
• The DA wants to transfer Couch’s sentence to adult court. But since this violation happened in the juvenile system, Couch effectively would start with a clean slate in the adult probation system. That is, the adult court judge could not punish Couch for violations he committed as a juvenile.
• At the time a judge reassesses Couch’s probation in the adult system, he has the power to put Couch in adult jail for a maximum of 120 days.
The 120 days in jail won’t please those who think Couch deserves worse, but as the facts stand now, it is what the law allows.
If Couch ends up on adult probation and violates it as an adult, he could face up to 40 years in jail, Wilson said. Couch also could find himself behind bars for longer if he is found to have committed any new crimes and is charged and convicted as an adult for those crimes.
Couch and his mother, who were being sought by Texas authorities, have been detained in the Pacific resort town town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Ethan Couch’s mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, and if convicted, faces between two and 10 years in jail, Wilson said.
It’s tough to explain the legal maze that stands to benefit Ethan Couch in the form of a light punishment for violating his probation.
The judge who hears the case “will throw the book at him, but the book is only a few more months because he turns 19,” said Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge in Florida. “So the legal issue is: Can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time. It’s a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We’ve already gone through his case. We’ve already done a plea bargain.”
Tracking the teen
A warrant was issued in mid-December for Couch to be taken into custody after his probation officer couldn’t reach him. He appears to have dropped off the radar after a video emerged that allegedly showed him at a party where alcohol was being consumed, according to authorities.
Couch had been ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his probation.
When Couch was captured in Mexico with dark hair and dark goatee, Texas authorities say the 18-year-old had the look of someone on the run, trying to change his appearance.
“I don’t think you go on a vacation and disappear, and don’t tell anybody, and cut your hair and dye your hair, and hide out in a shabby apartment in a resort town. … They fought so hard to keep him out of trouble when he killed four innocent people drinking three times the legal limit of alcohol, there’s no doubt in my mind that when the video came out that showed him at that party and he was facing a possible revocation of probation, they made a conscious decision to run, and they did,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told CNN’s AC360 on Tuesday.
Before they left for Mexico, they “even had something that was almost akin to a going away party,” Anderson told reporters.
Weeks later, Couch’s cell phone use might have led authorities to the pair.