Courts & Crime

North Carolina bars DWI courts from using ankle bracelets

North Carolina has prevented the state's drug and DWI treatment courts from using technology that has helped thousands of alcoholics stay sober.

Guidelines approved in 2007 prohibit those courts from using the ankle bracelets commonly employed to ensure that offenders don't drink.

That decision has puzzled and frustrated some officials, who question whether opposition to the technology was sparked in part by turf battles and personality conflicts.

David Wallace, director of the National Center for DWI Courts, said he's not aware of any other state that has imposed such restrictions.

"I'm very surprised," said Wallace, whose organization helps train officials in setting up DWI courts. "...It takes away one more tool that could be used to monitor people ... so they're not out there risking the community's safety."

The state's more than 40 drug and DWI treatment courts are designed to help rehabilitate repeat offenders who suffer from addictions. Participants are typically required to follow their jail sentences with months of intensive alcohol or drug treatment.

Judges in other N.C. courts can still order use of the bracelets, which test an offender's sweat every half-hour for signs of alcohol use. When those on probation are caught drinking, judges can order more treatment or punishment. Offenders pay a private company $12 a day for the device.

The decision to prohibit the bracelets in the drug treatment courts follows opposition by two high-ranking state officials who have raised concerns about the technology. Few dispute some of their chief contentions: The devices are pricey and they can't stop someone from driving drunk.

Gregg Stahl, the senior deputy director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, is widely viewed as one of the chief foes of the technology.

All the studies about the reliability of the bracelets, Stahl contended, have been funded by the device's leading manufacturer. "That sort of taints the science," he said.

He also maintains the device is vulnerable to "significant false positives" - that is, registering alcohol use when there has been none.

But an author of one study disputes those claims, noting that his research was funded by the federal government.

"Overall, the device worked as it was intended," said co-author Scott McKnight, whose study was published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "...False positives aren't really a problem."

McKnight and his fellow researcher did encounter one problem: The device became less able to detect alcohol use the longer it was worn. Stephen Talpins, vice president of Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the device's leading manufacturer, said the company has corrected that problem.

A number of groups — including the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys — have endorsed the technology. And a preliminary study by the National Center for State Courts found that repeat DWI offenders who wore the bracelets for 90 days or more were less likely to drive drunk again.

Judges sometimes agree to give a shorter jail sentence if an offender is willing to be monitored by the bracelet. But Stahl and some other state officials question whether that's fair to those who can't afford the $12 daily fee.

If such technology is used, he argued, the state should own and control it - and judges should be able to provide it regardless of ability to pay.

The bracelets aren't appropriate for drug treatment courts, Stahl said, because drug users — not alcoholics — are the target group for those courts.

Still, it's not uncommon for those courts to monitor alcoholics. About 20 percent of the more than 1,000 adult offenders who participate in an N.C. drug treatment court each year report alcohol as their "drug of choice," state data show.

The device can't immediately stop anyone from driving drunk, Stahl noted. Court officials aren't alerted as soon as an offender begins drinking because the test data are typically transmitted to a central computer just once each day.

"At some point, you're going to write an article where someone's killed somebody and they've got one of these bracelets on their ankle," said Stahl, the No. 2 official in the N.C. courts office and a 39-year veteran of state government. "And it's going to kill the entire industry."

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