Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Thursday called on a state Senate committee to study sentences for intoxication manslaughter cases after a teenager received probation for a wreck that killed four people.
Dewhurst said he wants the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to review how probation sentences are issued in adult and juvenile cases of intoxication manslaughter. While he did not call for an end to probation in certain intoxication manslaughter cases, Dewhurst said he wanted to make sure that intoxication manslaughter sentences "include appropriate punishment levels," his office said in a statement.
His announcement came about a week after 16-year-old Ethan Couch was given 10 years' probation after a June wreck in North Texas that left four people dead and two severely injured. Prosecutors in Tarrant County wanted a maximum of 20 years in prison for Couch.
State District Judge Jean Boyd sided with Couch's attorneys, who said justice would be better served if the teen was placed in a pricey California rehab facility. One defense expert during sentencing argued Couch's parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility -- a condition he termed "affluenza." If Couch violates the terms of his probation, he could be sent to prison for 10 years.
The Tarrant County district attorney's office, which prosecuted Couch, is now pushing Boyd to sentence Couch to jail time on two lesser counts of intoxication assault in connection with the wreck. But prosecutors have said -- and legal experts agree -- that there is likely no way for them to appeal the probation sentence, and the Legislature would have to act to prevent probation sentences in future cases.
Drunken driving is a personal issue for Dewhurst. His father was killed by a drunken driver when he was 3 years old.
"Having lost my own father to a drunk driver in my youth, I have a particular interest in this issue because I know the devastation it causes," Dewhurst said in the statement. "I am wholeheartedly committed to the safety of our citizens and believe that recent cases indicate existing sentencing options may leave justice undone."
As lieutenant governor, Dewhurst presides over the Texas Senate and can issue "charges" to committees to review specific issues. Texas' Legislature meets in regular session once every two years and is not scheduled to convene until January 2015. The criminal justice committee, in the meantime, could conduct a study or hold hearings on intoxication manslaughter sentencing.
Dewhurst faces a tough race for re-election before the Legislature reconvenes, with three formidable challengers in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor.