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Judge admits New Year's DUI, apologizes to 'all of Minnesota'

Judge G. Tony Atwal, was charged on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, with two counts of third-degree DWI, careless driving and failing to stop for a stop sign after being arrested in St. Paul early on Jan. 1. Courtesy of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office

ST. PAUL—A Ramsey County District Court judge who was charged with drinking and driving in St. Paul early on New Year's Day pleaded guilty on Tuesday afternoon and apologized."I can't express in words the remorse I feel," said G. Tony Atwal when he appeared in court on the charges Tuesday.

Atwal said he apologized to his colleagues, fellow citizens and everyone in Minnesota.

"I'm humbled and shamed by what happened," Atwal also said in court, adding that he accepted responsibility for the "poor decision" he made and for putting people in jeopardy.

The Minneapolis city attorney's office, which handled the case, charged Atwal on Tuesday morning with two counts of third-degree DWI, careless driving and failing to stop for a stop sign. His blood-alcohol concentration was more than twice the legal limit to drive in Minnesota, according to the criminal complaint.

Atwal, 43, made his first court appearance Tuesday afternoon. He pleaded guilty to one count of DWI, a gross misdemeanor, and the other charges were dismissed.

Hennepin County Judge Shereen M. Askalani, who was handling the case to avoid a conflict of interest for Ramsey County judges, sentenced Atwal to 365 days of imprisonment and stayed 345 of the days for two years.

Atwal qualified to serve his 20-day sentence — of which he received two days credit for time already spent in the Ramsey County jail — on electronic home monitoring vs. at the Ramsey County workhouse, said Patrick Cotter, Atwal's attorney. He has to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors his location and will not be allowed to leave his home, other than to go to work.

Askalani also sentenced Atwal to two years supervised probation. One condition is that he undergo chemical dependency evaluation/treatment.

Cotter said Atwal "took responsibility immediately and he's accepted the sentence, which is very consistent with what any other citizen would receive under the same or similar circumstances."

Atwal looks forward to returning to work as a judge, Cotter said.

Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann is reviewing the terms of Atwal's sentence and "(i)t is not yet certain when Judge Atwal will return to the bench," said Beau Berentson, Minnesota Judicial Branch spokesman, in a statement on Tuesday. "Judge Atwal's courtroom assignments for the remainder of this week have been assigned to other judges."

Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Atwal to be a Ramsey County judge in May 2016 and his term is due to expire next January. He earned his law degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2003.

Atwal pleaded guilty to a DWI charge in 2007 in Washington County. Minnesota court records show he has not been charged with other criminal offenses.

On Monday at 12:45 a.m., a St. Paul police sergeant who was patrolling on Kellogg Boulevard by John Ireland Boulevard saw a car that was traveling at least 40 mph in a 30 mph zone, according to the complaint. He noticed the driver didn't come to a complete stop at the stop sign at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the state Capitol.

The sergeant pulled the car over and identified the driver as Atwal, who lives in downtown St. Paul. He saw Atwal's "eyes were bloodshot and glassy and that his speech was slightly slurred," according to the complaint. He also "smelled a strong odor of alcohol" on Atwal's breath, the complaint continued.

The sergeant asked Atwal if he had been drinking, and he reported he had two glasses of wine and a gin and tonic, the complaint said. When Atwal was given a breath test at 2:34 a.m., he registered a 0.17 alcohol concentration, the complaint said. The legal limit to drive in Minnesota is 0.08.

Law enforcement around Minnesota arrested 117 people for DWI between 6 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

Atwal is assigned to Ramsey County District Court's criminal division. He is an adjunct professor of appellate law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and previously was an attorney in private practice and an assistant state public defender.

As a public defender, he represented a man who was charged with DWI in East Grand Forks, in a case that went to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The man had fallen asleep in his vehicle, but hadn't driven; he was convicted with two counts of driving while intoxicated. The appeals court in 2009 upheld a Polk County District Court decision that even though there was no evidence the vehicle had been driven, the man had "physical control" of it.

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