I mentioned in an earlier posting that SCRAM (“Secure Continuous Alcohol
Monitoring”) may not be as good as it sounds. My premise is that
the physical setup of this device may detrimentally impact a recovering
alcoholic’s ability to mainintain sobriety. Quite literally and simplistically,
this thing can drive you crazy. Every hour, this contraption comes alive,
quivering on one’s ankle for up to 5 minutes while its sensors try
to measure one’s perspiration from an ankle, waking anyone slumbering
within the same room.
This device is latched and locked to the offender’s ankle and shin
with a medieval dressing that attempts to protect the skin from painful
rash, scratches, and swelling. Finally, the torment of having this unproven
appliance reporting your daily intake of food or other products that the
manufacturer admits may provide false positives would push even the emotionally
firm to the brink of a stiff drink. Factor in the offender is on thin
ice –emotionally, mentally, and physically — and you have all the ingredients
of an offender backsliding into relapse and eventual recidivism.
Now, a skeptical Michigan judge and an ambitious Michigan Law Student published
a very good monograph in the Michigan Bar Journal (June 2006) debunking
the garage science that is SCRAM. Here is a sampling of Judge Powers and
Daniel Glad’s piece.
As of the writing of this piece, Alcohol Monitoring Systems (AMS) has sold
2,200 units to various courts in 23 states. The technology behind this
device is the Draeger fuel cell. SCRAM calculates transdermal alcohol
content (TAC) that is supposed to be the equivalent of blood alcohol content
(BAC). SCRAM then reports TAC to the probation officer via a modem.
Messrs. Powers and Glad were unable to unearth any complete studies of
diffusion of alcohol through the skin. The inventor of SCRAM, Jeff Hawthorne,
admitted under oath in a Michigan courtroom in December 2004 (52nd District
Court, Case Number 04-003877-FY) that SCRAM was not designed for use as
a quantitative analytical device. Also, he admitted that there are simply
too many factors that cannot be controlled. He reported that it is only
a screening device.
This begs the question. If it doesn’t quantitatively analyze alcohol
then why is it giving quantitative readings to probation officers resulting
in bond revocations and probation revocations? Well, it seems that the
only “studies” of SCRAM are those paid for by its manufacturer
according to Mr. Hawthorne. More disturbing, the SCRAM device cannot differentiate
between different types of common compounds found in the human body that
mimic ethyl (the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages). AMS refers
to these other compounds as “interferences”.
So, what are these “interferences”? Acetone (commonly found in
diabetics and individuals fasting) and endogenous alcohol. Endogenous
alcohol is produced by the body as a result of the breakdowns of certain
types of foods (e.g. chocolate cake, apple walnut bread, raisin bread,
english muffins, wheat bread, donuts). If one were to eat any of these
foods while wearing a SCRAM device, they may produce a positive reading
that would be reported to their probation officer.
Here is what we do know about SCRAM. There are no true peer-reviewed studies
of SCRAM; the rate of error is uknown, and the only person testifying
on behalf of these things is the major stakeholder of SCRAM — the inventor!
The best information circulating about SCRAM reads more of marketing buzz
than juried scientific studies. And, nobody seems to know when, and if,
SCRAM is calibrated on any basis. Finally, cases that are coming through
the pipeline are showing TAC readings that one national expert in alcohol
testing calls “biological impossibility”.
AMS has several years of marketing ahead of the defense attorneys who are
about to mount massive challenges to the accuracy and reliability of this
thing. This is a common gap between science and the courtrooms. Either
AMS gets these questions answered and wrinkles smoothed or defense attorneys
are going to have this purported science dropped on its proverbial head.
Until then, unfortunately, judges continue to use SCRAM and alleged offenders
continue to go to jail for alleged positive TAC readings.