Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler pleaded guilty Tuesday to third-degree driving while impaired -- which was a refusal to submit to a chemical test -- the most serious of seven crimes he was charged with when stopped by the State Patrol on London Road in July for driving erratically.
"It's been a learning experience, one that I find myself on this side of the podium, rather than sitting at the (prosecutor's) table there," Pertler told Judge Heather Sweetland before being sentenced in State District Court in Duluth.
"Words can't describe my remorse. My apologies to everybody. I do have to say that I have learned an incredible amount of information from the ... best in their fields, present company included, and I just want to apologize to the court and everybody and my constituents and, of course, most sincerely, my family," Pertler said. "They've been the ones that have had to take the brunt of the onslaught."
At 12:29 p.m. July 17, the State Patrol received a report of a gray Chevrolet sedan swerving over the lane lines on Highway 61 near Knife River. Another similar call was received as the trooper traveled to intercept Pertler's 2010 gray Chevrolet.
The trooper spotted Pertler at Highway 61 and 71st Avenue East in Duluth. He clocked the defendant traveling 51 mph in a 40 mph zone, and observed him make multiple lane changes without signaling.
A confused Pertler attempted to hide a nearly empty bottle of vodka under his car seat and told the trooper arresting him that he thought he was driving on Highway 53 from his Cloquet home to Menards in Hermantown when he was stopped, according to the trooper's report.
After being placed under arrest and advised of his right to speak to an attorney, Pertler refused to provide a valid intoxilizer test. The trooper wrote in his report that Pertler provided 47 weak breaths of air and stopped blowing when the volume on the intoxilizer would go up. The trooper said he offered to let Pertler take the test again, but the defendant said he was done testing.
A preliminary breath test indicated that Pertler had a blood-alcohol content of 0.234 percent, nearly three times the legal limit to drive.
Sweetland said she sentenced Pertler the same as she would anyone else with no prior record for refusal to test, which is a gross misdemeanor. The prosecutor was sentenced to one year in the St. Louis County Jail, but the sentence was stayed for two years of supervised probation. He was fined $2,095, but $1,000 of the fine will be stayed if he follows the conditions of his probation.
As conditions of his probation, Pertler must commit no same or similar crimes, attend a victim impact panel, provide a certificate of treatment to an Arrowhead Regional Corrections probation officer, and submit to random testing to make sure that he is abstaining from alcohol use.
Pertler, 48, joined the Carlton County Attorney's Office in 1995 and has been the county attorney since 2005. After the incident, he spent a month in an inpatient treatment program at Hazelden Treatment Center in Center City, Minn., before returning to work late last month.
The six misdemeanor crimes charged against him -- fourth-degree driving while impaired, speeding, driving over the center line, failure to signal, open bottle and no proof of insurance -- were dismissed.
"Essentially, what we did was we viewed it as we would any other case," said Duluth Assistant City Attorney Cary Schmies, who prosecuted the case. "We felt with the high test levels, the gross misdemeanor conviction was most appropriate. Oftentimes, people who have lower test levels or have other reasons for test refusal, we'd offer a misdemeanor. In this case, the test levels were so high that wasn't an option. ... But justice is supposed to be blind.
"I couldn't see making him the poster boy for DWI when we wouldn't do the same to anybody else under similar circumstances."