“Affluenza” teen Ethan Couch returned to a Fort Worth courtroom Tuesday with his attorneys to try to get him out of jail and recuse the presiding judge, arguing that if the teen was wrongfully incarcerated he could sue.
At Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys Reagan Wynn and Scott Brown presented their case before administrative Judge David Evans saying their client, Couch, was wrongfully jailed by District Judge Wayne Salvant, who oversees his case. They told Evans that Salvant, who sentenced Couch to jail for 720 days as a new condition of an existing 10 year probation, has a financial interest in the case because Couch could sue him for wrongful incarceration, the Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported.
Couch is five months into an adult jail sentence ordered by Salvant. This time represents four 180-day jail terms for each of the four people he killed while driving drunk in June 2013. Couch was 16-years-old at the time. In the subsequent high-profile trial, Wynn and Brown represented the teen with an “affluenza” defense, attributing Couch’s reckless behavior to a coddled and affluent upbringing where he did not know right from wrong. Although prosecutors sought 20 years of prison, a lenient juvenile judge gave Couch 10 years of probation, residential rehab, and counseling.
Recently, the teen’s legal team filed two motions. One maintained Couch should be released from jail because Salvant, a criminal court judge, did not have jurisdiction over the case, which originated in juvenile court and should be handled in civil court. If the motion is granted, all orders by Salvant, including Couch’s jail term, would be thrown out. The other motion was to have Salvant removed from the case. Salvant deferred this decision to Evans, who will review the matter and issue a written decision.
“[Salvant] had no subject matter jurisdiction,” Wynn told Evans. “If that is the case, there is an argument that [Couch] has been illegally incarcerated since April 2016,” according to the Star-Telegram. Wynn stated that if Couch was illegally jailed, he could have an “arguable” case for a lawsuit against Salvant. The counselor added such a legal action against the judge could create a conflict of interest which would force Salvant to recuse himself.
Couch’s case transferred automatically from the juvenile to the adult court system on his 19th birthday in April. His lawyers asserted Salvant’s criminal court jurisdiction was adult felony cases.
Tarrant County prosecutor Richard Alpert countered that Couch’s case “ceased to be a civil case when it was transferred from juvenile to felony court.” He called the defense’s argument about a possible lawsuit a “novel theory,” according to the Star-Telegram, commenting: “Their argument is based on a hypothetical argument that they may sue the judge. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Couch sat in the courtroom wearing a red jail issued jumpsuit. His hair, formerly dyed black when he fled with mother Tonya to Mexico, had grown out to its reddish-blonde color, according to the Fort Worth newspaper, which described him as having a thick beard. His father, Fred Couch, attended the hearing but did not speak to reporters. Salvant placed a gag order on the case.
Last December, authorities believed Couch violated the terms of his probation and his mother, Tonya, allegedly assisted him in fleeing the country. Although their disappearance triggered an international manhunt, they were found quickly in Puerta Vallarta and were extradited to Texas.
Salvant also oversees the case of Tonya Couch. She awaits trial on felony charges of money laundering and hindering the apprehension of a felon, her son Ethan. Weeks before the two vanished, she allegedly withdrew $30,000 from a personal bank account.
On September 19, Tonya Couch appeared in court with her attorneys Stephanie Patten and Steve Gordon who filed a motion stating she can no longer afford their services and has no visible means of support nor receives any alimony from her ex-husband, Ethan’s father. They revealed Couch lost a job tending bar one day after her start date because of intense media coverage of her case and employment. Her lawyers asked Salvant to reclassify them under court-appointed status so they could continue to represent her, meaning taxpayers would pick up the financial burden of her legal expenses. Salvant has not ruled on this motion yet.
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