Battling the booze on the front-line

Anytime, anywhere: Queenstown police during a drink-driving checkpoint on Frankton Rd PICTURE: BLAIR PATTINSON

Queenstown cops are fighting a never-ending battle against drink-driving. Paul Taylor follows them on a weekend operation

Just 16 minutes in and Queenstown cops catch their first drink-driver.

It’s a Saturday night in the hard-living resort, about 11pm.

Sergeant Mark Gill and constables Ian Madden and Terry Wood are working a checkpoint outside Pounamu Apartments, Frankton Road.

The flashing blue and reds from their two Holden Commodore patrol cars light up the asphalt as they stop cars coming both ways.

Every driver is asked to say their name and address, as a Drager 6510 breathalyser is held to their mouth.

If it doesn’t detect alcohol, they’re free to go on their way.

But if it does, they’re told to pull over and then blow into a tube attached to the device.

A reading over 150 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath and they face a daunting trip to Queenstown Police Station for a full evidential breath test.

The officers stop about 70 cars in a cold quarter of an hour.

It’s pretty good-natured – lots of “good evening officer” and a fair bit of banter from sozzled backseat passengers: “Test him, test him, he’s been on the piss all day.”

But car number 74 is a different story.

Gill, a big, bearded, seen-it-all cop, stops the 2004 silver Toyota Avensis and tests the driver. He quickly motions for him to pull off the road.

The driver blows into a tube, his keys are immediately confiscated.

It’s clear he’s had a skinful from the way he walks to the patrol car. He’s not staggering so much as walking like he’s on the moon – the weightless, bouncing gait of someone trying to look sober.

I ask Gill if he’s over the limit.

“Shit-faced” comes the candid reply.

Later on he says: “I could tell straight away he was well over.”

He’s both satisfied and disappointed.

“It’s one of those – we want to catch them but you don’t want any drink-drivers on the roads.”

As he takes the driver back to the station, the constables move on and establish another checkpoint on Lake Esplanade.

The lights go on, the six cones go out, an audience gathers on the balconies of a nearby hotel, and the cops begin stopping cars.

Dozens of drivers are tested for booze and given the all-clear, including the driver of a ute who did a U-turn ahead of the checkpoint.

Then, after 14 minutes, a 2007 black Subaru Legacy turns right on Lake Esplanade from Lake Street, by the Crowne Plaza. The driver obviously clocks the checkpoint because he stops dead in the road, then awkwardly pulls into a bus stop and kills the lights.

The constables watch as he swaps into his passenger seat.

There’s no one else in the car. It’s almost comical.

He’s tested and, no surprises, taken to the station.

Young, foolish, remorseful: Constable Ian Madden deals with 19-year-old drink-driver Oliver Michael Zimmermann, left, who got into the passenger seat of his vehicle – while being watched by police

Back at the station, the first driver – Frankton chef Christopher Taylor – has given an evidential reading of 1267mcg.

The legal limit is 250mcg (the under-20 level is zero). Those 401mcg and over go to court, facing a conviction, a driving ban and a fine.

So, 1267mcg is a massive reading – five times the limit and one of the highest you’ll see.

Taylor, 28, originally from the UK, is in Queenstown District Court two weeks later.

Lawyer Louise Denton says he acknowledges he has an issue with alcohol and has contacted AA.

He told police he’d had seven drinks after work and made the decision to drive his car home.

Judge Mark Callaghan says they must have been “pretty potent” to give such an “extremely” high level.

Taylor’s disqualified for eight months and fined $1400. He’s one of 10 drink-drivers convicted in the court that day.

Back at the station, seat-swapping driver Oliver Michael Zimmermann gives a reading of 1007mcg. He’s 19.

Not really getting it, he asks Madden “is that high?”

Madden tells him yes, especially considering the under-20 level is zero.

“F**k”, he says, and asks to go for a cigarette.

He’s denied the request because he has a 10-minute grace period to decide if he wants a blood test, which is more precise.

Zimmermann’s accompanied by his crestfallen parents in court four weeks later. His lawyer Tanya Surrey paints the picture of a youngster new to town who drank several cocktails in Harry’s Pool Bar without realising their potency.

She says he’s young, foolish and extremely remorseful.

He’s banned for nine months and fined $1200. He’s one of four convicted that day.

Back on the night both were caught, the cops are ready to go out again, this time for mobile patrols, pulling over vehicles well into the early hours.

They’ll continue the battle against drink-driving, week on week, year after year, indefinitely.