SCRAM or SCAM? ankle bracelets on DUI offenders


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.