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New tool to combat drunken driving

Nov. 20, 2013 @ 11:55 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Court officials hope a hand-held alcohol monitoring device provides the alternative needed to curb drunken driving and reduce jail costs in Cabell County.

The Sheriff's Alternative Sentencing Division started using the new technology in late August. It replaces the typical ankle bracelet with a hand-held Breathalyzer. The device, known as SOBERLINK, comes equipped with cell and GPS technology to transmit instantaneous test results and a photograph to verify who provided the sample.

Sam Stowasser, the county's director of alternative sentencing, called SOBERLINK the most advanced and effective alcohol monitoring device on the market. He and a colleague tested it for seven days and found it to be reliable.

"I believe this device is a breakthrough in technology and rehabilitation for community corrections," he said.

Stowasser's agency has used the device with 14 inmates. Nine of them remained on the system as of Friday. One man successfully completed a 45-day monitoring period, while positive tests led to the arrest of three offenders and a medical issue forced another off the program.

The county subjects its SOBERLINK participants to a minimum of four random breath tests each day. Stowasser said the offender's cellphone will receive a text message alerting him or her to respond with a breath sample into the hand-held device within 15 minutes.

SOBERLINK's ultra-wide-angle lens captures a photo of the offender's face as he or she submits to the test. It then transmits the offender's photo, location and blood-alcohol content to Cabell County Alternative Sentencing.

Stowasser said a blood-alcohol content of 0.02 will trigger an alert to Alternative Sentencing. The officer's cellphone receives the alert within a minute via text message, which then prompts an immediate response to the offender's location.

A search of the person and their location will follow, and dependent upon the findings and the amount consumed, the officer has discretion to arrest the offender and revoke his or her home confinement, Stowasser said.

Missing a test, attempting to manipulate its result and/or a detected location outside of the offender's boundary also could trigger a revocation, Stowasser said.

The county's first participant, Edward Lee Hutchinson, also became its first SOBERLINK success story. Court records show the 48-year-old pleaded guilty last year to third-offense driving under the influence and misdemeanor driving on a suspended/revoked license.

Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell initially sentenced Hutchinson to home confinement, and, in late August, removed the offender's ankle bracelet in exchange for his participation in the SOBERLINK program. That led to 175 negative breath samples over a 45-day period.

Farrell said Monday such successes give court officials hope that SOBERLINK will become another tool to keep drunken drivers off the road at a minimum cost to taxpayers. That's because SOBERLINK enables the court to monitor the offender's alcohol consumption during what otherwise would be time spent behind bars.

Stowasser agreed and explained participation in the program comes with mandated alcohol treatment. He said the majority of those participating are second-offense, misdemeanor convicts from magistrate court, who otherwise face the possibility of six months to a year in jail.

"It's going to make them stop drinking for the time they're incarcerated, but when they get back out a lot of times they're going to continue to drink," he said. "Not only are we keeping them from drinking, we're also helping them to overcome their addiction."

The SOBERLINK technology is a step above alcohol-detecting ankle bracelets, which are used in other jurisdictions. Such devices record one's alcohol consumption, but Stowasser said those results are not transmitted to authorities until the person returns home and is in range of their receiver.

Stowasser believes the constant threat of a random test stands as the largest deterrent to a SOBERLINK participant drinking alcohol and driving. He said four tests are the daily minimum, adding that more tests can be requested on any given day with multiple tests in a given hour.

Hutchinson's success led to Farrell granting him parole Oct. 18. He remains on supervision by the county's probation office through mid October 2014, according to court records.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.

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