SCRAM: Alcohol Monitoring for DUI Offenders in Illinois

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On January 1, 2009, a new law on driving under the influence (DUI) took effect in Illinois. Under the new law, first-time offenders who are arrested for DUI must install a breath alcohol ignition interlock device (BAIID) on their cars if they want to drive during the time of their Statutory Summary Suspension (SSS). Another aspect of the new law is the use of a continuous alcohol monitoring ankle bracelet by DUI offenders. More commonly referred to as SCRAM (secure continuous remote alcohol monitor), the device measures alcohol from the perspiration of the person wearing it. This article discusses how SCRAM works and some potential problems with the device.

How does SCRAM Work?

SCRAM is an ankle bracelet that measures alcohol in the wearer's perspiration. The person must wear the device 24 hours per day for however long a court has ordered the person to abstain from alcohol. Every half-hour, the device takes a measurement of the transdermal alcohol using a sample of the insensible perspiration taken from the air just above the skin's surface. Insensible perspiration actually evaporates before it can be seen as moisture on the skin. The device captures and holds this data and sends it to a SCRAM modem via a wireless radio-frequency (RF) signal. The device generally sends the data to the modem once a day or on some other predetermined schedule.

The SCRAM modem transmits data from the device to Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc. (AMS) for analysis. The modem plugs into an analog telephone line. At the set time, the device sends the data to the modem, which then sends the data to AMS for collection, analysis and storage of all offender data. Such data includes whether alcohol was detected and whether there were any attempts to tamper with the device. If alcohol is detected, AMS will notify a monitoring agency near the offender's location. The offender must pay for the cost of the device, which is typically about $15 per day.

Potential Problems with the Use of SCRAM

While using SCRAM may actually help some DUI offenders by showing prosecutors and judges that they have stayed sober, there are some potential problems with the use of the device. First, there is a time lag between the device's detection of alcohol and when the person would be cited for consuming alcohol. In addition, because SCRAM passes information through the modem to AMS (which is located in Colorado) for storage and analysis, the wearer does not know who will be reading the data or what that person's qualifications are as the reader is not required to be present at trial. This may present an issue under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Confrontation Clause provides that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Another potential issue is the reliability of SCRAM. It is a computer-based device and as with all such devices, there is a chance that it could malfunction. In addition, there is a risk that certain foods and other things besides alcoholic beverages may trigger the device's fuel cell technology, resulting in false positives. For example, certain baked goods that contain yeast can cause the body to produce alcohol, called endogenous alcohol, which may trigger SCRAM. In addition, the body produces acetone when breaking down fat. Acetone also causes the body to produce alcohol, so people who eat large amounts of fatty foods may produce more acetone and alcohol. Further, if anything interferes with the device's sensors, it may be seen as a sign that the wearer is trying to tamper with the device. It is possible for the interference to be caused by something completely innocent, however, such as the build up of dirt on the sensors.  

SCRAM has been used in many other states and the reliability of the device has been challenged in several courts under Daubert and Frye, but most courts have found in favor of the device. In a notable victory for people who question the SCRAM's reliability, Judge Dennis N. Powers of the 52nd District Court - 1st Division in Michigan found that SCRAM was neither reliable nor generally acceptable. It is likely that as SCRAM is used more frequently in Illinois, similar challenges will be brought in Illinois courts.

Judge Powers later wrote an article in which he explained some of the problems with SCRAM. See Hon. Dennis N. Powers and Daniel Glad, "The SCRAM Tether as Seen Through the Eyes of Davis-Frye and Daubert," Michigan Bar Journal, June 2006, at 35-38.