"There's a guy brushing his car off. This could be something."

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2010 (3791 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sgt. Rick Zurba (left) and Sgt. Rob Riffel (partially visible at right) work in the Winnipeg Police Service checkstop van, which has equipment for precisely testing a suspect’s blood alcohol level.

PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Sgt. Rick Zurba (left) and Sgt. Rob Riffel (partially visible at right) work in the Winnipeg Police Service checkstop van, which has equipment for precisely testing a suspect’s blood alcohol level.

"There's a guy brushing his car off. This could be something."

A light dusting of snow makes it easy to spot which cars have been parked at the Green Brier Inn for a long time. From his perch across the street, Sgt. Rob Riffel, studies the entrance like a hawk.

The head of the Winnipeg Police Service impaired-driving countermeasures can see the patrons. They're not looking for him, though.

Riffel has been doing this for 13 years. He knows all the ins and outs, all the tricks, heard all the excuses people have for drinking and driving.

He is also the man responsible for the increased focus during the last few years on enforcing impaired-driving laws. Rather than set up lengthy checkstop lines on major routes around Winnipeg, he shifted the focus to the source, instructing his team of about 14 officers to watch bars, socials, curling clubs and even house parties for lawbreakers.

The individual brushing off his windshield is now behind the wheel.

He quickly darts onto Main Street. Riffel, sitting in the shadows, throws his car into drive and follows, fishtailing on the slick pavement in an effort to catch up. The police lights come on. The sedan pulls over to the side of the street.

"False alarm," a slightly embarrassed Riffel laughs as he clicks his seatbelt back in. "He's the delivery guy. There's a stack of pizzas in the back seat. We're not off to a great start here."

No worries, he assures. Much to his chagrin, Riffel guarantees things will pick up.

7:45 p.m.

Main and Lansdowne

TWO beers. According to Riffel, that's what people typically say they've had when the police flashlight shines on their face.

There's the smell of booze as Riffel helps a suspect into the back seat of the unmarked Crown Victoria. The red and blue police lights are dancing and the man, who certainly has had more than the two-beer average, carries the weight of uncertainty on his face. He knows things have taken a bad turn here. How bad? That can be measured from the noticeable regret in his eyes.

"You only had one beer in the two hours you were there?" Riffel asks as he readies the approved screening device (ASD) used to measure alcohol levels in a person's body.

"Yeah. I was playing the machines (VLTs)," the man says.

Sgt. Rick Zurba (left) and Sgt. Rob Riffel process an impaired-driving suspect who blew a 0.13 blood alcohol reading on the checkstop van’s Datamaster machine. The legal limit is 0.08.

PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Sgt. Rick Zurba (left) and Sgt. Rob Riffel process an impaired-driving suspect who blew a 0.13 blood alcohol reading on the checkstop van’s Datamaster machine. The legal limit is 0.08.

"Did you win?"

The man chuckles. "I lost $35."

 

7:55 p.m.

THERE are two ways to refuse a breath sample: an outright refusal, as in "I don't want to," or purposely messing up the process. Through his slurred speech, the man says he is willing to give a breath sample, but his actions are not co-operating with ASD protocol. He's not blowing hard enough and he's moving his mouth around the nozzle, cheat tactics that provide an insufficient amount of breath for a reading.

Frustration is starting to fill the car now. After a lengthy, deliberate instruction on how to blow into the device, the guy sabotages the test three times before Riffel becomes annoyed.

"You're getting very close to me reading you the 'refusal' and once I do that, you'll have one more chance," he cautions the man. "After that, you will be charged with refusing."

The man burns another blow. The official refusal reading comes out. Now looking at a final turn, the man provides a sample. It's certainly more than one beer.

 

8:55 p.m.

THE $120,000 checkstop van has three rooms -- a bathroom, a small holding room and a main area where the Datamaster machine, a $10,000 piece of equipment that provides a reading for blood alcohol content, is located. It's through this machine the suspect's true reading is revealed: 130 milligrams.

The legal limit is 0.08 per cent, or 80 mg.

In a strange and uncomfortable silence, Riffel tackles the lengthy paperwork involved with the impaired-driving charge. Another officer prepares the Datamaster for another reading and the prisoner sits in isolation in the closet-size cell, sheepishly peering through the Plexiglas. He looks less scared now, a little more accepting of his predicament. His eyes drift down to the table. His wallet and car keys next to Riffel remain free.

Fifteen minutes later, he's asked to give another breath sample. This time, he blows 120. It seems the situation, for everyone involved, is a sobering one.

 

9:20 p.m.

THE suspect gets a notice to appear in court. The vehicle was towed away long ago. At the end of the waiting and all the paperwork, he is actually grateful to the officers.

"You have a Merry Christmas," he shouts.

"Be safe!" says Riffel, bouncing the goodwill back.

 

10:15 p.m.

McPhillips and Jefferson

AS we sit in a Safeway parking lot, watching foot traffic at the Tavern United bar across the street, Riffel shares a story of desperation. One night, he and his partner stopped for something to eat during the shift. They finished their burgers in the car and discarded the trash, but held onto their milkshakes. Back on the job, they promptly pulled over a suspected impaired driver. Soon after determining the suspect was prime for an ASD test, Riffel heard a slurping sound from the back seat. The guy was sucking back what was left of the milkshakes in an attempt to skew the test.

"We get to the station, he lunges for the garbage can and starts eating paper, thinking this will help get the alcohol out of his system," Riffel recalls. "What are people thinking?"

 

10:55 p.m.

THE Canad Inns hotel is a busy spot. Riffel has already pulled over three drivers from this location and as he heads out for a fourth, the glow of police lights is seen in the rear-view mirror. His colleagues have another vehicle stopped farther up the street. Nothing comes from Riffel's gamble on a white truck, but the news isn't all bad. His radio tells him the stakeout back on Jefferson resulted in another impaired-driving arrest.

"I think that's four already tonight," he beams.

 

12:07 a.m.

King and Rupert

A young woman coming out of the Earls parking lot (she passed the ASD test) and another designated driver near the Public Safety Building closes out the night for Riffel. The final count: 13 stops in total, six non-drinkers (or VLT players), four samples taken, one impaired-driving arrest, one pizza driver. Were some of those stops wasted?

"Not at all," he says. "Chances are they'll tell friends. That might cause others to rethink plans for an evening. That guy we grabbed at the start -- his was a bad plan. If I had my choice, I'd rather not see anyone in the back of my cruiser. There's no such thing as a wasted stop."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca