Offenders threatened, jailed for ‘false’ alerts from alcohol-monitoring bracelets: “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

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MILWAUKEE— He swears he was not drinking, but his ankle bracelet detected alcohol and that almost landed him back in jail. A Milwaukee man has shared his story with the FOX6 Investigators with the hope that the same thing won't happen to someone else.

Dave Matthews Band played a long show, but not long enough for Joel Clifford to sober up before leaving Alpine Valley last summer.  Body camera video obtained by FOX6 shows Clifford telling police he thought he was "OK to drive."

"When was the last time you had a drink?" the East Troy police officer asked Clifford.

"About four hours ago," Clifford said.

Clifford's breath-alcohol-concentration (BAC) was point-zero-nine grams per milliliter (.09 g/mL)...just above the legal limit.

He should have known better. This was not his first offense.  It was his third.

"Bottom line, I made an unwise adult decision," Clifford said.

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Convicted of his 3rd OWI, Joel Clifford was placed on a SCRAM ankle bracelet, which monitors alcohol in the body through vaporized skin sweat.

Clifford was sentenced to 60 days in the Walworth County Jail, but he was allowed to serve it in Milwaukee County on house arrest with so-called Huber release privileges to go to work.

"Being out on Huber, being out on GPS is a privilege, and I was trying to follow the directions to take advantage of that privilege," Clifford said.

To make sure he stayed sober, the court ordered Clifford to wear an ankle bracelet that detects alcohol through the skin. That's when he ran into more trouble.

"I didn't do anything wrong and they're sending me back to jail," Clifford recalled thinking at the time.

The bracelet is known as a SCRAM device, or Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor.

Jason Tizedes describes it as "a breathalyzer for your ankle."

Tizedes is sales manager for Alcohol Monitoring Systems (AMS), makers of the SCRAM bracelet, which is now being used in almost every state in the country. The bracelets keep tabs on approximately 350 Wisconsin offenders every day. Tizedes says the vast majority of those offenders -- 99.2% -- remain alcohol-free.

"Our primary focus is to try to change the lives of the people that are wearing the devices," Tizedes said.

Every 30 minutes, the SCRAM bracelet checks vaporized skin sweat for traces of alcohol. That data is periodically uploaded to the agency that's monitoring the offender. Here in the Badger State, it's a private, non-profit called Wisconsin Community Services (WCS).

Clifford says WCS knew he worked as a bartender at On The Border, a so-called "gentlemen's club" in Franklin. He's been a bartender there for the past 12 years. Because he works around alcohol all day, he knew he'd have to be extra careful while wearing the SCRAM device.

"You're pouring drinks, you feel something, I'm gonna assume it's alcohol," Clifford explained. "Ran back to the sinks. Washed my hands. Had a couple, few extra dry towels right there. Dried my hands off right away."

His first night on the bracelet, he poured drinks until 3:30 in the morning. He went home, crashed on the couch, and then awoke to a phone call.

"'It's Linda. It's from WCS,'" he recounts. "'We have a malfunction on your bracelet. Can you come down?'"

Clifford says his roommate drove him to the WCS office, where he was repeatedly questioned about how much alcohol he had to drink. He says the staff did not seem to buy his story that he'd consumed nothing but water.

Clifford says staff in the WCS office accused him of drinking and handcuffed him to a chair. He was later released when it was determined the alcohol alert came from other "environmental" sources.

Clifford says staff in the WCS office accused him of drinking and handcuffed him to a chair. He was later released when it was determined the alcohol alert came from other "environmental" sources.

"'You're drinking. Why don`t you just tell us you were drinking?' Which I wasn't. 'Why don't you just tell us what happened?' I'm like, 'I didn't drink!' They're like, 'Take him to the front, detain him.' They handcuff me to a chair,'" Clifford said.

It had already been several hours since his shift ended, so it was too late for Clifford to take a breath test that could independently verify his sobriety at the time in question. But eventually, WCS let him go without explaining why.

"My boss was like, 'I saw you all night. You didn't drink. But whatever you did, don't do it again,'" Clifford said.

"A lot of these participants are looking at having their liberties taken away and that`s something we take very, very seriously," Tizedes said.

Tizedes would not comment on Clifford's case, specificially, but he says SCRAM bracelets have a low rate of false positives -- 0.11%. That's about one out of every 909 alcohol alerts. Even then, there are human analysts who comb over the data to make sure they don't make a mistake.

"I don't believe that happens," Tizedes says. "And if it has happened, it's extraordinarily rare.'"

But SCRAM is not the only alcohol bracelet on the market. Another repeat drunk driver, who we'll identify only as "Jennifer," told the FOX6 Investigators that she was hauled away to jail due to false alerts on an alcohol monitoring bracelet.  She agreed to share her story if we agreed not to publish her real name.

In 2013, the Milwaukee probation office put her on a different bracelet -- the Transdermal Alcohol Detector from BI, Incorporated, or BI/TAD for short. Jennifer wore the bracelet without any issues for the first four months, but then a series of alcohol alerts landed her back in custody.

"I was like, 'I told you, I wasn't drinking! Period. I haven't drank since my arrest,'" Jennifer said.

Another offender FOX6 identifies only as "Jennifer" was arrested, then released, after alcohol alerts on a TAD bracelet made by BI, Incorporated.

Another offender FOX6 identifies only as "Jennifer" was arrested, then released, after alcohol alerts on a TAD bracelet made by BI, Incorporated.

She sat in jail for five days until her probation agent paid her a visit, and presented charts showing five separate potential alcohol violations. Jennifer had no explanation. Still, the agent released her from jail, without telling her why.

"You never got a definitive answer?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn.

"No," Jennifer said.

The company that makes the BI/TAD bracelet declined to answer questions about Jennifer's case, but its website claims an accuracy rate better than 99%. The makers of SCRAM insist their ankle bracelet is better.

"Ours is going to be the gold standard," Tizedes said. "Ours is used in academic research. Ours is used by federal agencies to do studies."

Either way, Michael Hlastala says no system is perfect.

"Because it's an indirect test, it has some limitations," Hlastala said.

Hlastala is a forensic expert who has testified in dozens of court cases about the limitations of transdermal alcohol monitoring. While the devices do a good job of detecting alcohol, he says they are not necessarily good at distinguishing consumption of alcohol from environmental sources, such as hair spray, lotions, perfumes or other sources.

"The criteria that are used for identifying an alcohol-related event are a bit vague," he said, referring to SCRAM's method of determining the type of alcohol being detected.

Joel Clifford now wonders if an alcohol-based chemical detergent they use at the bar might have triggered his alert.

"I had my hands on the dishes all night," he said. "You're rotating your hands through a dishwasher. You're getting that chemical right into your skin. And it read as I was drinking."

Tizedes doubts that is what happened, explaining that when environmental alcohol is detected, it usually looks like a quick spike on the chart. Drinking leaves a more gradual pattern, he says, as the alcohol is slowly eliminated from the body. When the type of alcohol can't be determined, he says, they give the bracelet wearer the benefit of the doubt.

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Only "confirmed" drinking events are reported to the court, and Clifford's public case file shows no such event was ever reported. In fact, he completed his sentence on the bracelet and was released two weeks early. Still, he wanted to tell his story to warn others.

"Because, how many other people were telling the truth like me and got sent back to jail?" Clifford said.

Of course, he knows the best way to avoid going to jail is not to drink and drive in the first place.

Wisconsin Community Services officials did not return a call seeking comment. Officials with the Milwaukee County House of Correction declined an on-camera interview. However, HOC Superintendent Michael Hafemann did release the following statement:

Former inmate Joel Clifford’s bracelet generated some alcohol alerts—not “false alerts,” not “false positives”—indicating there was a presence of ethanol. Per standard protocol for inmates who are granted the privilege of being supervised during their jail sentence through electronic monitoring/home detention, Mr. Clifford was detained briefly at the EM Program offices while EM Program personnel, with the assistance of AMS, worked to determine either a confirmation of drinking or that the alerts were environmental alcohol; the determination was the readings were environmental. At no point was there a confirmed consumption of alcohol; Mr. Clifford was allowed to maintain his employment and he served the rest of his court imposed loss of liberty, for a third driving while intoxicated conviction, without incident. In short, the equipment and process worked as intended.

Moreover, while he was in custody and after his release from custody, Mr. Clifford had the ability and access to submit a complaint and/or grievance regarding any aspect of the EM Program, but failed to do so; he never availed himself of the opportunity to address his concerns with persons who could have resolved whatever issues he may have had.

FOX6 Investigators also contacted BI, Incorporated, the makers of the TAD bracelet, for comment about Jennifer's arrest for alcohol detections, and her subsequent release without explanation.  We provided BI with Jennifer's true identity, so the company could review her case. A spokesperson referred all questions to the "government agency" in charge of supervising Jennifer.

At the time, that was the Milwaukee probation office, a division of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said:

[Jennifer] was fitted with a BI/TAD bracelet following her release from jail. A BI employee fitted her bracelet in the presence of a DOC agent in January 2013. DOC received an alert in May 2013 for potential violations related to the bracelet. A request for apprehension was issued and she was subsequently arrested by the Greendale Police Department. DOC investigated the alleged violations and she was released after 5 days, as DOC was unable to confirm that a violation occurred. She was subsequently placed on a different alcohol-monitoring device.

10 comments

  • Alice Sherock Behnke

    Oh my goodness this just happened to my husband too! He sat in jail for 3 days before WCS realized their mistake and he was able to get in front of a judge to be released. The judge was rude to him and told him if he just admitted to drinking he would let him go. My husband refused to admit to it because he did NOT drink! In the end he was told it was “environmental”. That’s BS! He sat in jail for 3 days, a judge was a complete jerk to him, and was lied to! Something has to stop.He really got screwed on this deal and reading this story makes me realize he isnt the only one. This happened within the last few month so its not going away – its getting worse!

    • Dylan

      Don’t drink and drive..end of story..and I don’t think u wear the bracelet on the first offence …

    • andrew risser

      this happened to me personally. i spent 5 to 6 months on the scram bracelet and had no problem not drinking. my charge wasnt for drinking either, it as dui for drugs. i was called down to HOC on a sunday morning at 10am and told to bring my box. once down there, they accused me of drinking, cuffed me, and took me in. at the “hearing” i was called a liar, told to admit it, and what not. i saw the graph and it showed i had a consistant .04 for about 14 hours. now, if i was going to drink, it would be more than a .04 for sure. ALSO, who could keep a consistant .04 for 14 hours straight? i only had a month left on my sentence and i almost lost my job because of it. i also had linda as a wcs worker. something VERY shady is going on here. when i was in the intake pod, there were 5 other people that had the same thing happen to them. we all had jobs, little time left on our sentances, and they had no reason to lie about it. one of the others i talked to was at work at the time it said he was drinking, and his boss verified it. yes, i made my mistakes, but i was punished for doing nothing wrong. this needs more investigation because how do you prove your innocence in this type of situation? you cant. please help fox 6! im willing to help in any way so more people dont lose their jobs, houses, family, etc.

  • Tasha

    My husband is on one of these, a few weeks ago it read that he was drinking apparently between 9am and 5pm. He was at work from 8-4, he is a tree trimmer and climbs trees for a living. There was no way he was drinking but even with 6 witnesses they still don’t believe him. And to make it even more interesting they didn’t even inform him of this “violation” until 6 days after it happened to which they were going to arrest him but gave him 2 days to get his affairs order. We spent those days getting proof of him being at work and all the witnesses and had to hire a lawyer. We also did research and paid over $300 for a hair alcohol test. When he returned to probation with all the evidence they said that they still didn’t believe him but extended the scram bracelet (it was supposed to come off in a month) and required him to attend intensive outpatient therapy (something else to pay for) and said that even though he is up to date on payments and hasn’t done anything wrong he looses his chance to get off of probation early. His next visit to probation he took in the results of the test which were negative for alcohol. They dropped the therapy and took a bit of time off the scram (still longer then he was supposed to have it and he has to pay over $400 a month to wear it) And told him that if he took it to court that they would charge him with a formal violation and send him to jail. Now if this whole situation doesn’t sound corrupti don’t know what does. The scram system is more like a scam system!

  • Tabitha

    I was on the SCRAM never had any problems……..don’t be an idiot and drink on the bracelet because it will catch you just like the guy in the story, you could not convince me that he wasn’t drinking but had positives. I has small alcohol events but it was narrowed down to using products that I thought were alcohol free but the alcohol amounts were not this high, because it was a true environmental substance and not a drinking event. Stop being a menace to the community and stop drinking, that is what I did. Don’t blame anybody for you going to jail EXCEPT for YOU!!!!! TAKE RESPONSIBILITY!!

  • Nanette Ziemer

    I have a Bracelet on. I was told 60 days. I never ever have been in violation of Driving while Intoxicated. 60 days later, I was told until I get another court hearing it stays on. After 60 days I got a case of the F it’s and drank while on the bracelet. It’s been 5 months now and I still have it on. I also Submitted voluntarily to a Mobile Scram where you breath into it 9 months prior to the Bracelet. So I have been monitored for 14 months now. I finally had to reveal the bracelet to my 9 year old as we were going tot the Beach this past weekend. Does anyone else think this is too extreme?

  • Jesse

    I’ve had many monitors just do to switching company’s and I’ve had at least one incident on all of them crazy right but the same thing each time said the device was being tampered with or I left it is very consequential having these it’s risky I went to the place huh hum 2🕰 And watched the bracelet still say it’s being tampered with no one was touching it no clothes were on it nothing same thing with a little city we all avoid because so many 👮 If u live near Tacoma wa, so word of advice don’t get this and if u do literally track take photos or write down whatever your preference so u can have your stuff ready to fight in court cause it is a violation I hope this helps someone if u happen to get in trouble it’s a cold world out there and with legalization of MJ it’s created so much money for the legal system…

  • Annemarie

    My husband had been home seven months on bond with a SCRAM device on his leg. On March 2Oth my husband was notified of an emergency court date suspecting him of drinking. We learned the date of the event and immediately went into investigative mode because we suspected that the granite countertop installation had something to do the alarm. I contacted the countertop factory to inquire if they used alcohol product which had remained on the surface believing that somehow my husband had came into contact by touching. I was told that everything thing they used would not leave a residue. On March 21st the day of court my husband and I went to Home Depot to get information for the installation that took place at our house and what chemicals were used. We were only able to get a date of installation and expected conclusion. After we left Home Depot my husband and I stopped at the SCRAM office. My husband told the employees that we were having granite countertop installed at the house and that was the cause of the alert. Her response was that she had to be in court for the case as well. While at the courthouse in the hallway of the 4th floor my husband’s representative informed the prosecutor of what had taken place on the day in question. The state conveyed to the judge that she had no indication what my husband defense would be. The state presented data from Scram that my husband had a confirmed drinking event from after 4pm until after 2pm. My husband’s representive argued that granite countertop was being installed and that the fumes in the air trigger the device to indicate a drinking event. The judge refused to consider his response which lead to him being incarcerated and license got revoke because the state said he was not allowed to drive and that someone from probation had seen my husband driving with a child on the day of the event. Evidence of the alcohol compound ingredients from the installation process provided by the countertop factory was received after the court hearing. Almost four months later on July 18th a motion to reduce bail based on evidence – of the monumental amount of ethnol compounds in the products used to preform the installation- which provided indication of a false positive and malfunction had occur. My husband’s expert witness testified that the environmental exposure was the culprit for the alert and that the device malfunctioned . During the his testimony I learned that the device scanned every 30 mins and the intervals of depletion was too fast for the human body. I learned that the drinking event beginning after 4pm and that my husband readings went back to zero as he was out of the house for 2hours between 5:30pm and 7:20pm. He popped in then out -after he had gotten home and dropped off the older child- for about 30mins. When he returned home mins before 8pm and remained in the home his levels spiked then depleted over the course of the event. The state’s expert witness for SCRAM refused to acknowledge the malfunction and the false positive. He said that the fact the my husband’s reading went to zero during the event happens once therefore doesn’t mean anything and that SCRAM only analyze the data from the time of the event to when it goes to zero. After closing arguments the judge said she will take things under advisement. On July 26, the judge denied the motion without explanation. This means that he will remain in will county jail until his case comes to a close.

    I will find a way to get him home….

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