published Monday, January 13th, 2014

One drink, and sophisticated new monitoring bracelets will alert Hamilton County authorities

Robert Livingston pulls out his guitar, which he says he took up playing again after he got sober, at his home in Soddy-Daisy on Tuesday. Livingston has worn an alcohol monitoring anklet for two years and says it has helped him get sober.
Robert Livingston pulls out his guitar, which he says he took up playing again after he got sober, at his home in Soddy-Daisy on Tuesday. Livingston has worn an alcohol monitoring anklet for two years and says it has helped him get sober.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
  • photo
    Robert Livingston shows an alcohol monitoring anklet that he wears.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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BY THE NUMBERS

*A total of 80 people are under monitoring in Hamilton County by House Arrest Systems of Tennessee. Tennessee Recovery was monitoring 49 in December, according to the company.

*Tennessee Recovery charges users a $10 daily fee. HAS charges $275 a month. Both are funded through user fees and do not use tax money.

* By comparison, it costs $81 a day to house an inmate at the Hamilton County Jail, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Janice Atkinson. Inmates are charged $35 for each day of incarceration.

Robert Livingston thanks God because he can stay sober. But a piece of technology coupled with stiff court penalties is what got him on the path.

"I drank for 30 years," Livingston said. "I was what they called a closet drinker; didn't really like to be around people."

The 61-year-old Soddy-Daisy man had tried to quit on his own for four years before his arrest in April 2012 on his fourth DUI.

He's been sober since his arrest, thanks to an electronic bracelet that is a constant reminder of what will happen if he takes a drink. He has to stay sober -- if he falls off the wagon and is convicted, he'll face jail time and the loss of his driver's license.

Attorneys and judges in Hamilton County have increasingly more sophisticated devices that allow people to remain free before trial but still be monitored. And the most talked-about advances in local court monitoring are used to combat multiple-offense DUIs, such as Livingston's.

Monitors can detect alcohol nearly instantaneously. They can be programmed to set out exact permissible routes of travel to and from work, school or church.

Mobile phone-based monitoring systems also can trigger "stalker alerts" for domestic violence victims who have protective orders in place.

Monitor managers can even electronically "rope off" areas such as gambling facilities or bar districts to track whether a defendant visited the location.

But beyond the benefit for authorities and offenders like Livingston, these increasingly sophisticated technological tools help protect the public.

A 1995 study by the Transportation Research Board, a division of the nonprofit National Research Council, showed that as many as three-quarters of convicted drunken drivers continue to drive on suspended licenses.

And one-third of drivers arrested or convicted of drunken driving were repeat offenders, according to the federal Department of Transportation. Across the United States 10,322 deaths were attributed to drunken driving in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was 457 more than reported in the previous year.

And drunken-driving arrests are on the rise in the Volunteer State.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported 5,728 DUI arrests in 2012, a 43 percent increase from the state's 10-year low of 3,233 in 2010.

•••

Though state laws restrict driving and eventually revoke a driver's license after multiple convictions, it wasn't until 2010, when a change in Tennessee law directed judges to consider multiple DUI offenders a public risk, that pre-trial alcohol monitoring became more commonplace.

Improvements in the technology made monitoring more practical, officials said.

The transdermal alcohol monitoring bracelet that Livingston wears can pick up alcohol vented through the wearer's skin and trigger an alert almost instantaneously. The consequences are swift and certain -- a revoked bond and a trip to jail.

It's the immediate feedback that counts, said Roger Thompson, UTC associate professor of criminal justice.

There is some recidivism, but studies show the relapse rate of those being monitored is half that of those not on monitoring.

The wearer knows things will "only get worse" if he or she drinks while being monitored.

"It does command attention," Thompson said.

•••

Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said monitoring offers a problem-solving option other than jail. Immediate consequences to breaking the rules serve as a reminder for someone tempted to drink.

"The emphasis gives them the opportunity to realize they can function without alcohol," Steelman said.

Steelman first encountered the alcohol monitoring devices as a prosecutor when they were used for probationers on certain restrictions.

Older devices stored information that was checked periodically by probation officers. The systems used a radio transmitter to determine how far the wearer was from a base unit if he was on house arrest.

While state-of-the-art for its time, the monitoring was crude by current standards.

It might take days to return results of alcohol testing. People on house arrest could only be monitored within a certain distance from their homes. The court would have to decide if they could be left not monitored to work, go to church or do other tasks.

The key now, Steelman said, is that if there is a violation, he'll know immediately.

•••

Kate Lavery, DUI prosecutor for the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office, first learned of the devices in 2010, shortly after taking the post.

She learned more from private companies such as House Arrest Systems and Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring.

"My first reaction was the kind of reaction you'd have to a snake oil salesman," Lavery said, laughing. But over the past few years she and her fellow DUI prosecutors have seen results.

No local- or state-level studies have been conducted, but she noted through anecdotal conversations with fellow prosecutors that they are seeing defendants on monitoring not drinking. That will hopefully result in fewer subsequent DUIs, she said.

Scott Cranmore, director of Tennessee Recovery, said fewer than 1 percent of clients have violated conditions since the company began tracking alcohol monitoring tests in October 2012.

Stan Lanzo, a private criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said that over the past two years he's had an estimated 40 clients use the devices, and not one has violated the conditions.

"It's extraordinary," Lanzo said. "I think eventually what you'll see is there'll be a system where instead of locking people up they'll put these devices on them and they'll stop drinking."

•••

Cranmore and Joel Davenport of House Arrest Systems admit that no technology is foolproof. Each case has to be weighed by the attorneys involved and the judge to determine if the person is a good candidate for monitoring and not jail time.

A 2012 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sampled data from six jurisdictions and showed that users completed their programs with 68 to 88 percent compliance.

A 2009 study by the National Drug Court Institute showed that recidivism for those using the devices was half that of those who had the same restrictions and programs but did not wear the bracelets. Ten percent of wearers violated as compared to 20 percent of nonwearers, according to the study.

Courts are typically slow to adopt new technologies before they've been proven and peer-reviewed, said University of Tennessee law professor and former state Supreme Court Justice Penny White.

In pre-trial use, the bracelet is one of the conditions of release agreed to by the defendant after a negotiation between the prosecutor and defense attorney.

White said judges have to evaluate whether the monitoring device is necessary for public safety and if it addresses the danger presented.

There is a presumed right to pre-trial release under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, White said.

Lavery said she is approached by defense attorneys whose clients want to be released. Good behavior while on the bracelet can play a factor in later considerations. Defense attorneys can show that the wearer was compliant while awaiting trial and has made long-term change.

That's Livingston's hope. He faces four months in jail, a $13,000 fine and losing his license at age 61 if convicted of his fourth DUI. He has a hearing date set in February.

In April he'll have been sober for two years.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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