SC advocates say rarely used alcohol monitoring devices could save lives
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina advocates are pushing for another tool to be considered for DUI cases more frequently, as the state continues to face a “drunk-driving problem.”
“It’s become a really valuable tool that we have in fighting those who are driving drunk on the roadways and killing and maiming others,” Kimberly Cockrell, victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving South Carolina, said.
“This device does give somebody the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is when they say, ‘I’ve not had a drink since the night I got arrested,’” Charleston attorney Drew Carroll said.
A SCRAM CAM, which stands for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring, is the most widely used device for continuous alcohol monitoring.
Most recently, circuit court Judge Michael Nettles ordered that Jamie Komoroski, the driver accused of killing newlywed bride Samantha Miller while drunk behind the wheel, to wear one as part of her possible probation.
But this is not often the case, advocates say, especially in the Lowcountry.
“In all honesty cannot remember a single time that I’ve requested it below Columbia and it’s actually been something that has been part of a bond,” Cockrell said. “I have to constantly explain it to magistrate judges. And even when I do that, then they still don’t do it.”
Charleston-area attorney Stephan Futeral estimates he’s represented more than 1,000 DUI cases.
“[With] felony DUI, the concern is that if you’re a heavy drinker and you may do all over again,” he said. “I had not heard of this SCRAM monitoring device. This is not something that, for example, is approved by SLED or any other government agency for use here.”
SCRAM monitors first went to market in 2003 and debuted in South Carolina in 2012.
Lindsay Lohan was one of several celebrities who wore them in the early 2000s.
“We refer to it as the Lindsay Lohan anklet,” Cockrell said.
The CDC estimates 3,299 people in the state were killed by an impaired driver from 2009 to 2018.
Data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration also shows in 2021, South Carolina had the second highest rate of impaired driving deaths per million vehicle miles traveled, just behind Montana.
Alana Long, of Johns Island, lost her unborn child in a drunk-driving crash in May 2020.
“My son saved my life because if I wasn’t pregnant, I would have died. And so, he cushioned the blow for me,” she said.
The driver who caused the wreck, Joseph Sinclair Jr., is now serving 8 years in prison for felony DUI. His passenger was also killed.
Sinclair was out on bond at the time for a hit-and-run and had a history of DUI convictions.
After the crash, he was initially denied it again, but later received a personal recognizance bond with no monitoring.
Long wishes that the court would have ordered something like the SCRAM device, for the safety of others on the road.
“I think the thing that really bothers me the most is not necessarily Joseph Sinclair’s actions. It’s the judicial system and how we are continuing to allow people who have these dangerous crimes… just continue to do them,” Long said.
Meanwhile, Carroll says he uses the devices as “mitigating building tools” for his clients but doesn’t know many others who do.
“It gives people who otherwise might be incarcerated pretrial indefinitely the opportunity to be out participating in the defense of their case,” Carroll said.
Instead, he finds other attorneys opt for another device, the ignition interlock, which requires drivers to measure their BAC before they’re able to start the car.
It took advocates years to also strengthen the state’s current laws surrounding them.
“Technology moves very slowly into, particularly, the criminal justice system in South Carolina,” Carroll said.
How do SCRAM devices work?
They look similar to GPS monitors but operate very differently.
Instead of tracking location, the ankle monitors measure blood alcohol content through a wearer’s sweat.
“In layman’s terms, it’s a breathalyzer for your ankle,” Stacy Andrews said. “You also excrete a very small portion of it through every pore in your body. That’s why alcoholics smell like alcohol.”
Andrews runs Coastal Carolinas Monitoring. She often serves clients who have voluntarily offered to wear the monitor as part of family court situations as well as court-ordered DUI bond provisions to ensure client sobriety.
“Once there is a confirmed tamper or a confirmed consumption, I notify all parties full disclosure,” she said.
They are roughly estimated to cost $10 to $15 a day in the Southeast.
There are alternatives to test BAC, like blood and urine tests, but the SCRAM CAM device recordings are instantaneous and are less invasive.
SCRAM systems also has a different device, a breathalyzer with face recognition technology.
Andrews says that is “highly favored” in family law situations, particularly for scheduled child custody visits.
A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study found that there was “virtually” no recidivism while the ankle monitors were in use, but did find that over time those rates rose. The Department of Justice also reported it found results in its study that pointed towards the devices being a “useful monitoring tool.”
The company states on its website it has monitored nearly 1 million clients with an average of 99.1% “sober days” or 24-hour periods without a confirmed tamper or alcohol consumption.
Legal challenges overturned
But each time, the appeals courts ruled that the data is reliable and allowing it to continue to be used in a court of law.
However, critics have pointed out possible flaws in the system that have the potential to lead to a false positive.
Concerns surrounding water damage from sweat, external alcohol sources that the device might mistake for alcoholic consumption and even differences in body chemistry have been brought up in this article from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
SCRAM systems maintains that its data is “scientifically accurate” and backed by multiple peer-reviewed studies.
“They don’t realize the many benefits that these devices can have,” Andrews said.
There have been no known challenges of the device in South Carolina courts.
“I think over time, this is the type of thing that there could be some utility seen by everybody involved in the system,” Carroll said.
“We deserve to be safe from those who are making harmful choices,” Cockrell said.
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