Alcohol monitoring devices poised to spread in wake of new law
When strapped to a leg, device can detect use of alcohol anytime – not just when drinker gets behind the wheel
SCRAMx alcohol monitoring device
Bill Powers is a tech geek. That may set him apart from other lawyers, but he thinks his Bar comrades need more than a passing interest in the evolving technology of alcohol detection to adequately defend their clients in court.
Not that continuous alcohol monitoring, or CAM, is anything new. It’s been used sporadically in North Carolina since 2005. What’s new is a recent legislative push that figures to expand use of the technology across the state.
Investment banker Bruce Roberts of Brevard-based Rehabilitation Support Services was a part of that legislative push. Rehabilitation Support Services’ authorized service partner is Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the maker of SCRAMx, an alcohol detection device.
“We lobbied the legislature heavily this year," Roberts said. Rehabilitation Support Services was involved in promoting legislation that includes CAM as condition for sentencing or pretrial release in certain alcohol-related offenses.
With the passage of “Laura’s Law," and other legislation, device makers and purveyors of CAM devices may have hit the jackpot. “Laura’s Law" toughened penalties against repeat driving-while-impaired offenders and mandated use of CAM in certain instances.
But increased use of CAM may come at a price, said Shelby attorney David Teddy, and criminal defendants may be the ones paying it, if they can.
How CAM works
Various state statutes use the term CAM as a generic reference to alcohol detection technology. But SCRAM — Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring – is a trade name used by AMS, the company that first developed and patented the now familiar SCRAMx bracelets.
The devices are secured around a person’s lower leg, near the ankle, using a combination of infrared light and a probe to ensure – based on skin density and temperature – that it is affixed to a human body. The makers of SCRAMx chose the lower leg as a detection point because it poses the least interference with daily activities, Roberts said.
Roberts said the human body passes about one percent of consumed ethyl alcohol through perspiration. “The amount of alcohol burned up through the skin is predictable and proportionate from sweat glands spread across different parts of body," he said. The SCRAMx devices contain an electro chemical fuel cell that creates an electric current. Roberts said the electric current in the device measures the number of ethyl alcohol molecules produced from a person’s sweat glands and sends the data to a computer.
Powers said he tried a SCRAMx bracelet out when the devices were first introduced in North Carolina in 2005. “I tried to mess around with the thing every way I could," he said. He tried placing a piece of bologna between the device and his skin, but he received a call a few hours later indicating that the device had been subject to tampering.
On another occasion, Powers said he drank alcohol. “I received a call telling me how much I drank," he said.
Bruce Roberts and attorney Bill Powers
Powers said the value of CAM is that it can be maintained 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The often-used ignition interlock device, by contrast, prevents a driver from starting a car if, based on a single breath, the presence of alcohol is detected. That’s useful from a public safety standpoint, Powers said, but it doesn’t help a driver who wants to prove that he or she has abstained from drinking over an extended period of time.
CAM can be useful to practitioners in at least three phases of driving-while-impaired cases, Powers said.
In the pretrial phase, a magistrate or judge can make a driver’s release conditional on use of CAM. A judge can also require CAM as a condition of a person’s probation after a DWI conviction or plea of guilt. In some instances under “Laura’s Law," signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue this summer, use of CAM is mandated for repeat DWI offenders.
CAM technology can also be used in N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles license restoration hearings to prove a driver has abstained from using alcohol for a period of time. Legislation passed in 2009 [G.S. § 20-19(d) and (e1)] provides that 120 days or more of CAM-verified sobriety will be accepted by the DMV as evidence of abstinence for approval of conditional drivers licenses. Powers said CAM evidence is being used increasingly by applicants in DMV hearings to win conditional restoration of licenses.
Powers said defense attorneys need to fully familiarize themselves with CAM-related statues and CAM technology. Aside from “Laura’s Law," the Justice Reinvestment Act, which becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2012, will enable courts and probation officers to require that convicted offenders submit to substance abuse monitoring, which may include CAM.
The N.C. Department of Corrections has endorsed expanded use of CAM for alcohol-related crimes. The department issued a request for proposals late last year to private vendors for electronic monitoring technology.
“In the past, CAM was used on ad hoc basis," Powers said. “Now it has been legislatively approved and in some instances mandated."
Roberts said the SCRAMx device costs $75 to install and $12 per day of monitoring. He said as the volume of usage goes up, the price may go down.
He said the Justice Reinvestment Act promotes incorporating and maximizing use of so-called “community-based sanctions," or criminal sentences that provide an alternative to detention state prisons. Compared to the costs associated with detention, Roberts said, use of CAM is cheap.
Teddy said that where CAM is used as a substitute for jail time, it saves money. But an active prison sentence is usually reserved for offenders with multiple DWI convictions, and Teddy is concerned that CAM use will become a feature of virtually all DWI cases, even those involving first-time offenders.
Some defendants, he said, simply won’t be able to afford CAM, especially in these difficult economic times. Teddy said the costs associated with CAM will be piled on defendants who already face significant fines, increased court costs, and costs associated with probation and community service. Teddy said it will be difficult for unemployed defendants or those living in poverty to pay those costs.
“We’re going to get to the point where people simply can’t afford to comply with conditions placed on them by a court," Teddy said.
Roberts said the problem of indigent defendants bearing the cost of CAM is a major issue. “There will have to be a balance between the benefits of enhanced rehabilitation and public safety versus the costs of criminal justice," he said. “As use of this technology