Metro-East News

Get a DUI? You can have it dropped if you’re willing to blow into your phone

New smartphone app tracks DUI offenders’ drinking habits

Robert Nienhouse, CAM Systems CEO, explains how the breathalyzer works.
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Robert Nienhouse, CAM Systems CEO, explains how the breathalyzer works.

For one year, Keith Dalton received a text message four times a day telling him it was time to prove he was sober.

In doing so, the Caseyville man was keeping his end of a deal he made with St. Clair County prosecutors. He could avoid a second DUI conviction on his record by successfully participating in an experimental court-monitored sobriety program.

Dalton wrapped up his year of sobriety in May. He said to celebrate, he took his mother LeeAnn — who gave up chocolate for the year in a show of support — out to ice cream and brownies.

“I think the device is a very positive device,” he said.

Not quite six years prior to his DUI arrest in April 2016, the car salesman faced his first DUI charge and conviction in August 2010. He said he was cooperative with prosecutors and ended up paying the mandated fines, taking the alcohol treatment classes and losing his license for a short period of time.

“But again, it really didn’t take alcohol out of the situation,” Dalton said. “To me, I feel like I’ve learned a lot more after this (DUI) than the first one.”

But again, it really didn’t take alcohol out of the situation. To me, I feel like I’ve learned a lot more after this (DUI) than the first one.

Keith Dalton

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said his office is experimenting with the program, called Trac, which is a breath-test device that connects to anyone’s smart phone via Bluetooth and monitors people’s sobriety at several points throughout the day. DUI defendants who are a good fit for the program are offered a deal by prosecutors: They plead guilty to the DUI and all related charges but agree to a year of court-monitored sobriety.

If they successfully complete the year of sobriety, the DUI conviction is not filed and the defendant’s record only reflects convictions on the accompanying traffic violations.

“We kind of call it the Sword of Damocles,” Kelly said. “If they don’t comply with this, a conviction is entered immediately — that’s the deal. They’ve already pleaded guilty, so we don’t need to negotiate with them at that point.”

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St. Clair County State's Attorney holds the TRAC alcohol-testing device used to track whether offenders drink alcohol. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

Kelly said defendants who participate in the Trac program still go through alcohol treatment and pay at least $2,000 in DUI fines. Upon the agreement, any suspension on the defendant’s license is rescinded — Kelly says the suspension is not necessary when they’ve agreed to constant sobriety.

“They still get to work, they still get to be productive citizens but they have to be on this device for a year. So long as there are no violations … at the end of (the year) the DUI goes away and they are only convicted of the companion cases,” Kelly said.

Kelly said research shows that if someone who struggles with alcohol can abstain from drinking for six months to one year, they are more likely to live a more sober life.

“I think a lot of it is a lot of carelessness,” Dalton said of drinking and driving. “I think if I had to go through what I went through the second time during the first time, there would have not been a second DUI.”

About a year and a half ago the state’s attorney decided to experiment with the program to see how effective Trac could be in rehabilitating DUI offenders.

“Sobriety is what will ultimately keep us safe and keep them safe,” Kelly said.

He said a few dozen people have successfully completed Trac and about four people have failed. Around 30 other people are currently participating in the program.

Sobriety is what will ultimately keep us safe and keep them safe.

State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Robert Nienhouse is chief executive director of CAM Systems, a northern Illinois company that provides the Trac devices to St. Clair County and more than 10 other counties in the country.

He said people blow into the breath-test device while their phone syncs up and takes a photo of the defendant.

“We harness the power of the smartphone, the smartphone will pick up a photograph of the participant and a GPS location,” he said. “And the breathalyzer will pick up the BAC and pair it with the photo and the GPS location and send it to the server. So, we get real-time reporting.”

He added that in addition to facial-recognition software, company specialists review the photos to ensure the defendant didn’t have a similar-looking relative or friend blow into the device for them.

Both Kelly and Dalton noted that the other option — installing a breath-interlock device on a car — isn’t always effective. For example, people can use someone else’s vehicle that doesn’t have an interlock device. Kelly said the Trac device is more intrusive in someone’s personal life than the vehicle interlock, as it requires a complete lifestyle change and constant monitoring.

Kelly said another benefit of the program is that there is no cost to the taxpayer because the defendant pays a fee to rent the device. The amount due is determined by their income and ability to pay. For reference, Dalton paid about $200 a month. He said he now puts that money into a savings account.

As a society and as a state, we’ve done a pretty good job of ratcheting up the penalties as it relates to people’s licenses — we are getting at the driving part of driving drunk. We have not done as good of a job as we could on the drunk part of drunk driving.

State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Kelly said, “As a society and as a state, we’ve done a pretty good job of ratcheting up the penalties as it relates to people’s licenses — we are getting at the driving part of driving drunk. We have not done as good of a job as we could on the drunk part of drunk driving.”

Dalton said completing the program has changed his perspective on alcohol. And while he has had a few drinks since May, he said he’ll never do so and get behind the wheel again.

“Even if it’s a $100 Uber, you’re going to be pissed but then you remember what you went through for a year,” Dalton said.

Plus, he said, a year without alcohol helped him to lose some some weight and see that he doesn’t need alcohol to have fun.

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