Tell-All Alcohol Monitor Won't Even Give Mouthwash a Break

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

My day with the unsleeping snitch began one afternoon at a nondescript building next to the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg. Alex Reid, kneeling like a shoe salesman, tugged a rubber strap around my ankle until a black plastic box sat snugly against my leg.

"How does that feel?" he asked.

Not too good, actually. The Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor, or SCRAM, is about the size of a bulky tape measure and chafed against my anklebone from the start. By the end of a day that would include a four-mile run and a long walk with the dog, it would feel like a leg iron.

Constant vigilance hurts.

Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the company that provides Loudoun with devices to monitor alcohol levels in drunken-driving violators, agreed to let me wear one of its smart shackles to experience what life is like when your drinking habits are under ceaseless surveillance. They invited me to test the technology as their regular clients use it, with exercise, bathing, spilled substances and, of course, a few cocktails.

It only took a few minutes for Reid to fit the strap, tighten two screws and cover them with tamper-proof plastic tabs. He gave me a Breathalyzer test to check my blood-alcohol level. Finally, he showed me how to set up the wireless modem that would, every night at 3 a.m., automatically receive data from the monitor and send it to a server in Colorado.

As he explained that the device would record my transdermal alcohol level every 30 minutes, I felt a tremor on my ankle as the tiny air pump sipped its sample from my skin. The box buzzed like a BlackBerry on vibrate. Even though I was under no court order to avoid drinking, I came to think of that sensation as a cellphone call from my conscience.

Long trousers concealed the scarlet DUI implied by my anklewear. But when I changed to running shorts at 5 p.m., I became acutely self-conscious. I wasn't surprised that people noticed as I jogged along Sligo Creek Trail, but I was taken aback by their pointed reactions: open stares at my leg, a quick glance at my face and then eyes firmly averted.

I was ready with a dodge for any inquisitive stranger. (It's a fitness computer! Insulin pump! Pedometer!). But no one said anything.

After my shower at 6 p.m., I administered my first test, "accidentally" spilling a capful of Listerine down my leg. I rinsed it off and half an hour later joined my wife for a shot of scotch whisky on the rocks. It was a little creepy knowing that a machine was about to catch me red-handed, or at least red-ankled.

I had a glass of wine with dinner, then decided to give the thing a real workout. My friend Tom picked me up at 8:30, and we joined two buddies on the patio of Guapo's, a Mexican restaurant in Tenleytown.

Two double margaritas later, I needed a break from the unblinking gaze of Loudoun's alcohol watchdogs. With tequila-fueled defiance, I stuffed one of my friend Jim's Dos Equis labels between the monitor and my ankle. For the next hour, I hoped, my blood-alcohol level was my own business. Although the singing might have given me away.

My subterfuge was effective: The device won't work if you slip something between it and your skin. But the monitoring service can tell if that happens, and that usually constitutes a violation of the user's parole agreement.

The next morning, I called Reid for the overnight report from Colorado. "What did you do at six o'clock?" he asked. "Your alcohol reading went off the charts."

Turns out Listerine is quite a boozy mouthwash, especially when poured undiluted over an alcohol sensor.

It's so potent, in fact, that my anklet remained in a Listerine haze all night, reading hour after hour of maximum alcohol saturation. Reid could show me the hour for which I had blocked the device with the beer label, but otherwise my reading was a flat line until the wee hours, when the mouthwash began to wear off.

A real bracelet wearer with those results would have been in for some hard questions and possibly busted for tampering. But even I, an innocent test case, felt a bit of relief that my double margaritas never made it on my permanent record.

I cut off the strap, monitored no more, and poured an extra-large cup of coffee. Now the only thing that hurt more than my ankle was my head.

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