Many courts and law enforcement agencies have embraced a new alcohol detection monitoring system in lieu of locking up DUI offenders. But, as some states consider expanding monitoring for other criminal offenses, critics worry about the reliability and civil liberties of using these devices.
Over the years, police and judges have tried everything from ignition locks to random checkpoints to combat drunk driving. Yet driving under the influence remains a persistent problem: there were 788,000 DUI arrests in 2007, down only slightly from 803,000 in 1998, according to the FBI.
Perhaps as a result, courts and law enforcement agencies across the country have recently embraced a new technology that is changing the way the legal system deals with drunk drivers. At a time of dwindling criminal justice budgets, the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) device, an alcohol-detecting ankle bracelet that must be worn 24-hours a day, provides the promise of constant vigilance, on the cheap. The monitors cost local governments about $1,500 plus about $12 to $15 a day for monitoring, which mostly paid for by the wearer, compared to about $62 day to keep someone in prison.
Despite some questions about the accuracy of the monitors, law enforcement agencies have largely welcomed them as a cost-effective and convenient alternative to either jail or constant checks with probation officers. Since they were first introduced in 2003, the devices have been used to monitor more than 110,000 offenders in 48 states, according to the manufacturer, Alcohol Monitoring Systems, based in Littleton, Colo. Bracelets reportedly have been spotted on celebrities like Lindsay Lohan. Some family court judges have suggested using them in divorce and child custody cases where a spouse is alleged to have a drinking problem.
“For keeping somebody sober, not drinking, 24 hours a day, they’re a great tool,” said Jim Vlahakis, the coordinator of South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Project, an alcohol monitoring program for chronic DWI offenders. “It’s continuous, and you can’t fool them.”
Others are not so sure -- and a handful of critics have questioned how reliable the devices really are. The monitors are mostly used as a condition of bail or probation for DWI offenders. The monitors, the shape of a small plastic box are strapped to the user’s ankle, and must be worn constantly, even in the shower. Every 30 minutes, they measure the amount of alcohol that is secreted through the skin; they also have sensors that will indicate tampering. A modem in the probationer’s house uploads the data from the monitor once a day to AMS, whose analysts notify law enforcement if the wearer has had any alcohol.
But many everyday products, such as hairspray and household cleaners, contain a type of alcohol that is detected by the bracelets. Exposure to large amounts of those products could trigger the monitor, leading some critics to charge that they produce false positives. Failing a test can mean being sent to jail.
“The problem is distinguishing the alcohol,” said Michael Hlastala, a professor of physiology at the University of Washington who has testified in several court hearings against the accuracy of SCRAM. “They don’t have a good way of separating out interference from drinking alcohol.”
“The device went to market before adequate scientific work was done. There are problems that have not yet been addressed experimentally,” he said.
Despite Hlastala’s concerns, courts, which could reject the monitors as inaccurate, have for the most part accepted them. In what appears to be the country's first appellate court decision on the issue, the South Dakota Supreme Court in September found the SCRAM system, and the science behind it, to be sufficiently reliable to be admissible in court.
Though the devices are widely used, it appears only a handful of cases have called their reliability into question. Kenneth Cooper claims in a lawsuit that he was jailed for 17 days in Henderson, Nev., based on several erroneous readings from his SCRAM monitor, which he was forced to wear after he pleaded no contest to driving under the influence. His attorney, James Dilbeck, said the time it takes for AMS to receive the data and contact law enforcement prevents wearers from effectively challenging what may be false reports.
“It sends a silent signal, and then a few days later someone comes and picks you up. By then you have no way to defend yourself other than your word,” he said. “This is an unregulated service, and judges are taking as gospel what these things report. And you cannot defend yourself. I think its garbage.”
Dilbeck would not say what he believed caused the monitor to record a false report. Other wearers have claimed that exposure to large amounts of hairspray and farm equipment set the devices off.
In a statement, AMS said, “We stand firmly behind the results in this case and for every other SCRAM client across the country…AMS looks forward to the opportunity to aggressively defend our technology in court.”
AMS says its employees can distinguish between the data produced from alcohol consumption and exposure to other contaminants like hairspray, based on factors such as the varying rates that the body absorbs and metabolizes different kinds of alcohol. Several different people scrutinize data from potential drinking episodes –to make sure the user has not been exposed to other alcohols-- before the company confirms that wearer has been drinking, said Kathleen Brown, a company spokeswoman.
“It’s an arduous review process before we confirm a drinking event,” said Brown. “If there’s a mistake, there’s a lot at stake for these people. We take that very seriously.”
SCRAM has not been widely tested in independent, peer-reviewed studies. But in the testing that has been done so far, the devices have received mostly positive marks. A 2007 study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that SCRAM did not have a problem with false positives, but did report false negatives and suffered from decreased reliability when worn for a long period of time. Brown said AMS’s internal testing shows a false positive rate of 0.12 percent.
“I use it as a deterrent,” said Michigan District Court Judge Dennis Powers, who has publicly criticized SCRAM, saying the monitors are too easily fooled by outside contaminants.
“They think they’re wearing an unbeatable alcohol monitoring device and accordingly they behave themselves. If they deny they’ve been drinking, I try to get outside verification. To assume it’s always reliable is a mistake. People might get hurt.”
Scott Michels is a freelance writer in New York.
Photo courtesy Alcohol Monitoring Services