Her crime was driving without a license; a judge forced her to choose between months in jail or a year of alcohol monitoring

A portrait of a woman sitting on a park bench with one arm resting on the back of the bench.

April Alonso for Injustice Watch

Anastasia Strauther at LaFollette Park in Chicago on Aug. 1. Cook County Associate Judge Gregory Vazquez forced Strauther to wear an electronic alcohol monitor for months while on probation for a driving on a revoked license conviction.

How do you end up with a court order to strap an alcohol-monitoring bracelet to your ankle when you weren’t even driving drunk?

For Anastasia Strauther, who had two separate years-old DUI convictions, it happened because she found herself in the courtroom of Cook County Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez for a minor traffic violation while driving on a revoked license.

It started in March 2021, when Strauther, a 34-year-old Black woman, stopped to fuel up her gray Chevy Malibu at a Shell gas station in west suburban River Forest. Sean Heneghan, a white River Forest police officer, was at the gas station assisting with an accident. According to the police report Heneghan later filed, Strauther pulled into the station and “abruptly ran out of her car and inside the store.”

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Strauther’s swift movement that chilly afternoon prompted Heneghan to run her car’s plates. Strauther’s license was revoked due to DUI convictions in 2009 and 2015, he reported. As Strauther drove east on North Avenue from the gas station, the officer tailed her in his unmarked squad car and pulled her over when he saw her change lanes without signaling, according to the police report.

The officer learned that Strauther did not have a driver’s license or proof of insurance for the vehicle and had been arrested for driving with a revoked license “multiple times in the past,” according to his report. Heneghan arrested Strauther, and later that day she was charged with driving with a revoked license, operating an uninsured motor vehicle and changing lanes without using a turn signal.

A year later, she became one of dozens of people in Cook County to be fitted with a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) bracelet, a device that would monitor her abstinence from alcohol 24/7. Strauther still doesn’t understand why Vazquez ordered her to wear the SCRAM bracelet when her crime was driving without a license.

“I’ve been driving on a suspended license for a long time,” Strauther told Injustice Watch. “I know that’s wrong.”

After completing probation sentences for the two DUIs she caught in her 20s, Strauther said she couldn’t afford to go through the complicated and expensive administrative process to get her driving privileges restored either time. Other than repeatedly driving on a suspended license, Strauther hadn’t been in legal trouble since the last DUI seven years ago. But with three sons in school and a steady job at Target 9 miles from her home, she depended on a car to get around.

The River Forest arrest came almost a year after a traffic stop in Chicago in which Strauther said she got lost in an unfamiliar area of the North Austin neighborhood late at night and mistakenly drove a few feet the wrong way down a one-way street. For that offense, a Cook County judge in Skokie had ordered her not to drive as a condition of her pretrial release, but Strauther said she had to keep driving to reach her job.

Strauther said she was upset but not surprised when the Skokie judge put her on house arrest with an electronic monitor after she was caught flouting her orders with the River Forest arrest. She earned time served while on electronic monitoring and could continue to go to work, though she eventually lost her job at Target.

When she showed up to Vazquez’s Maywood courtroom to resolve the River Forest charges in August 2021, Strauther said she expected to plead guilty in return for a sentence similar to the house arrest she got in Skokie.

Strauther said she had understood from a conversation with a private attorney who represented her for a while that a guilty plea would mean either two years of probation or about two weeks in the Cook County Jail. Strauther said she was prepared to have her family take care of her kids and do the jail time to get the case behind her. But the terms of Vazquez’s deal turned out to be very different.

***

A 14-year veteran of the bench, Vazquez is known for his unorthodox approach to courtroom and case management. Unlike other judges who handle criminal cases, he doesn’t just go along with plea deals struck between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Instead, he requires an off-the-record conversation in a room behind his courtroom for every plea deal. Judges are allowed to hold such conferences by law, but in practice, few choose to do them for low-level felonies like the kind Strauther was facing. Vazquez pauses his court proceedings multiple times each day to enter into lengthy meetings about pleas with attorneys and defendants.

Last Aug. 31, Vazquez called Strauther and her attorney, Cook County Assistant Public Defender Alissa Heredia — by then she had run out of money for a private lawyer — into the back room to discuss the plea deal. That’s when Strauther learned that the choice before her was either several months of incarceration or two years of probation. For one of those years, she would also have to wear a SCRAM ankle bracelet. It would analyze the sweat vapor on her skin every 30 minutes to make sure she wasn’t consuming alcohol. Defendants are required to pay for the device.

Strauther didn’t want to go on SCRAM, saying it didn’t make sense for her to prove she was staying sober when her charges had nothing to do with alcohol. “I don’t feel like I need it,” she said. “I’m not an alcoholic.” Besides, she worried about paying for the device. At the time, her unemployment checks totaled $324 a month, and she was already falling behind on rent and other bills. Her bank account balance sometimes dipped below $2.

“He wasn’t listening,” she said of Vazquez. “He was like, ‘She can’t pay $5 a day?’… He embarrassed me.”

Strauther said that at one point she couldn’t hold back her tears, facing a choice between a lengthy incarceration and being forced to pay for a monitor she couldn’t afford. “Once I started crying (Vazquez) said, ‘I’m gonna let you go out and straighten yourself up and we’re gonna call the case again and agree to do the SCRAM bracelet,’ ” Strauther said. “I felt pressured and intimidated.”

A transcript of the conversation doesn’t exist because it took place off the record without a court reporter present. But Heredia, Strauther’s public defender, confirmed her client’s account of the plea negotiations. She recalled Strauther telling Vazquez she would be willing to do jail time and the judge saying that if that was her choice she would have to spend a longer period behind bars than she had expected.

Vazquez did not respond to a request for comment about the details of this case or his use of SCRAM in general.

Vazquez initially ordered Strauther to go on SCRAM last September, but she didn’t contact CAM Systems, the private vendor that provides the device in Cook County, to arrange for the fitting because she said she didn’t have the money to pay them. In November, Vazquez extended the deadline to early February, then later gave her another month.

What Strauther didn’t know when she finally had the cigarette-pack-size ankle bracelet strapped to her leg in March and paid a $240 deposit and $35 for her first week of monitoring was that CAM Systems was no longer under contract to provide SCRAM to Cook County probationers. In fact, the company’s last contract had expired 14 months earlier. Nevertheless, Cook County judges, chief among them Vazquez, continued to order people to wear the device as a condition of probation or as a condition of parenting time in domestic relations cases.

Since Injustice Watch first reported on the use of SCRAM in Cook County last year, the number of people on the device has increased from 96 people in late September to 116 in mid-June, according to data provided by the Office of the Chief Judge. As of June 13, Vazquez was responsible for 44% of all the court orders to wear the monitor, up from 36% from last fall.

Not only was Strauther charged $5 a day by CAM Systems for the ankle bracelet, but she also needed to travel to one of the company’s offices periodically to have the data from the bracelet downloaded. She couldn’t afford to pay an extra fee for a docking station in her home so the readings could be taken automatically. It was an inconvenience that turned into an impossibility when Strauther finally landed a new job at a warehouse in Northlake in May.

She worked 11-hour shifts and could no longer travel to downtown Chicago to have the monitoring data downloaded on the weekdays when CAM Systems was open. Her probation officer filed a violation, and Strauther was soon back before Vazquez, telling him how her work kept her from getting to the bracelet readings on weekdays.

“I had just got this job, and I was trying to explain that I’d lose the job if I had to call off,” to go to CAM Systems’ office, she said.

Strauther had no lawyer for this hearing. Vazquez has sometimes explained in court that he prefers not to hold formal hearings for probation violations, saying that, as a result, he doesn’t have to appoint indigent defendants a public defender.

Heredia, who happened to be in Vazquez’s courtroom that day on another case, intervened on Strauther’s behalf as the judge was ordering her to not only report to the CAM Systems office the following day, but to also return to court the day after that.

“My client works full time. She needs to work in order to pay for the SCRAM,” Heredia told Vazquez, according to a transcript of the hearing. “You said they do uploads on Saturday. Can we make that a possibility for her?”

Vazquez agreed, but not before giving Heredia a hard time for speaking up for Strauther and implying that by doing so she was putting Strauther at risk of going to jail. “You haven’t been appointed on the case,” the judge told Heredia. “If I appoint the public defender, now jail is a possibility.”

Vazquez then called CAM Systems from the bench to make an appointment for Strauther for that Saturday at the company’s Oak Brook location — 13 miles from her home. He warned her that if she didn’t show up, he would issue a warrant for her arrest.

“You can explain to (Strauther) that it’s a lot easier to park in Oak Brook than it is on South Wacker Drive downtown,” Vazquez told Heredia, handing her the address of the office and the 1-800 number Strauther would have to call to be let into the building.

“I think the issue is this is a (driving on a suspended license) case, and she doesn’t have a license,” Heredia said, “so it’s really hard for her to get to Oak Brook, but she’s going to try.”

Strauther said she had to take a Lyft to a deserted suburban office park that Saturday afternoon. “When I get there, there’s no one there, no one in the building,” she said. “I called the number, and no one answered the phone.” Someone coming out of the building let her in, but she couldn’t find any information about the company’s offices in the lobby, she said. After waiting around for a while, she left.

Unbeknownst to Strauther, the day after her last court appearance, Vazquez had set a new court date for her — on the following Monday. Neither Strauther nor Heredia was in court the day he scheduled this Monday hearing, so neither of them knew about it. Two days after Strauther’s unsuccessful visit to CAM Systems, she didn’t show up for a court date she didn’t know she had, and Vazquez issued a warrant for her arrest.

When the probation office called her about the warrant, Strauther said she was terrified. If Vazquez decided to enforce it, she would have to pay a $300 cash bond to get out of jail. She had just gotten her first paycheck from the warehouse job and was able to make a dent in three months of overdue rent and other bills, but she wouldn’t have enough to make bail.

“This is fitting to tear me apart,” she told Injustice Watch on the phone, her voice swelling with emotion. “I just don’t understand why do I have to have this thing on my leg. … I can barely get to work because I can’t drive, (and) Ubers is $40 there and back. I don’t have the money!”

Later that week, Strauther came to the Maywood courthouse to turn herself in, though she hoped that Heredia would be able to persuade Vazquez to quash the warrant. She had made a new appointment with CAM Systems for the next Saturday — it turned out she had to leave a voice message at the 1-800 number to be let into the office.

***

Vazquez made a big show of canceling the warrant. “I needed to get your attention somehow to get you to comply,” the judge announced from the bench. “I’m going to remind you of the position you were in before you entered a voluntary plea of guilty in this case.”

He then had the assistant state’s attorney read out all of Strauther’s past convictions: driving on a suspended license, the two prior DUIs, and a 2005 robbery case from when she was a teenager.

Strauther later told Injustice Watch that she felt humiliated by the recitation and didn’t understand why that was relevant to her current case or having to wear a SCRAM bracelet. “I feel like you holding me back for what I did in the past when I was younger,” she said about Vazquez. “Yes, sure enough I was driving when I wasn’t supposed to be driving, but I’m not drinking and driving. I know. I learned my lesson from that. I was young when I did that. … I was young during that (robbery) — wrong place, wrong time. I didn’t rob nobody. I was just there with my cousins.”

In court, Vazquez asked the prosecutor to remind everyone how much jail time Strauther could have gotten had she not agreed to probation with SCRAM: 120 days.

“I said I want you on SCRAM because of your two DUIs in the past, so if you drove there’d be less of a chance of you injuring someone,” the judge said. “You’ve been constantly resistant to this. Any other judge would have thrown you in jail.” He told her to just get the bracelet on her leg already.

A portrait of a woman wearing a white t-shirt with her hair in tight braids staring into the camera.

April Alonso for Injustice Watch

Anastasia Strauther spent more than four months on SCRAM after Judge Gregory Vazquez ordered her to either wear the alcohol-monitoring bracelet or spend months in jail for a driving on a suspended license case.

Strauther interjected: “I’ve had it on since March.” The probation representative in the courtroom reminded Vazquez that the issue that day was data downloads. Vazquez didn’t get bogged down in the details. “Appreciate the break you’ve been given,” he told Strauther. “Can’t make it any easier than that.”

The Saturday before Memorial Day, Strauther’s partner and her two adolescent sons accompanied her to the appointment in Oak Brook to have her bracelet data downloaded. It took about five minutes. When she came out of the office building she told Injustice Watch that CAM Systems had to put a new bracelet on her leg because the previous one wasn’t working. She didn’t know whether she would get credit for the two months she had already spent on that device.

She looked over at the boys in the back seat of the car. “I try to keep them out of it because it’s embarrassing to me, but they’re smart, so they see what’s going on,” she said. “When I first got it on, they were like, ‘Mom, you don’t even drink, it don’t make any sense.’ ”

Strauther pulled up the pant leg of her light-wash skinny jeans, which could barely stretch over the bulging plastic of the bracelet. She said she regretted agreeing to wear it, even though she knew it was best for her kids that she didn’t end up spending months in jail. She said she worried about her debt to CAM Systems growing.

“If I was late today, I’d pay a $50 late fee. If I’m late paying, it’s a late fee. If your card is declined, that’s a late fee. I don’t have anything,” she said. “I feel like this bracelet is a way to get more money out of poor people, and they don’t care about what they have going on, they just want to get money.”

A few weeks later, Strauther lost her job at the warehouse in Northlake. She blamed the SCRAM bracelet for being unable to continue doing the physically demanding work of moving boxes around a hot facility. “We had to climb ladders and jump over conveyors,” she said. But she didn’t want to be stigmatized by colleagues for the device, so she didn’t wear shorts. “I had to always wear big pants to cover my leg, and the work was heavy on my ankles.” One day, she said she broke down in the bathroom because she was so hot.

The device was also irritating her skin and made it hard to sleep. “My ankle is getting black and bruised up,” she said. “(The bracelet) got loose now because I’m stressed out. I lost weight.”

Not only was SCRAM interfering with her work life, it prevented her from enjoying her free time, too, she said. Though it was the beginning of July, she was spending most of her time inside. “I took my kids to the beach and put shorts on, and I felt like people were staring,” she said. “I don’t go outside because I don’t want people to look at my leg. I just don’t. It makes me depressed.”

Strauther was about to start a new job at an Aldi near her home, and she thought maybe, with more than four months on SCRAM behind her, Heredia could persuade Vazquez to take her off the monitor early.

At a mid-July court hearing, Vazquez asked about any reports of drinking violations or device tampers. The probation officer mentioned two alleged tampers in March. “A tamper is always expected in this type of sentence,” the judge said. “I don’t expect people to magically solve an addiction issue whether it be chocolate or heroin or somewhere in between.” Vazquez seemed to have forgotten that Strauther’s case had nothing to do with drinking.

Ultimately, Vazquez said he would let her get off the device early with one condition: When he originally sentenced her, he had eliminated all the court costs and fees that typically accompany sentences — even ones required by state law. He typically justifies this decision by saying that it frees up defendants’ finances to pay for SCRAM. “I’ll put the fine back on, and I’ll remove her from (SCRAM),” Vazquez said.

Strauther would have to pay $500 to the courts, but she would have until the end of her probation in August 2023 to do so. As the brief hearing concluded and Vazquez disappeared to discuss plea deals with other defendants, she texted Injustice Watch: “I’m free.” She got the ankle bracelet removed the next day.

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