As a St. Paul police officer told a suspected drunk driver to get in his squad car, the man responded, “I am a Ramsey County judge” and asked the officer to allow him to walk home, according to police reports made public Friday.
The officer repeated to Ramsey County District Court Judge G. Tony Atwal that he should get in the squad and he did. It was early on New Year’s Day and Atwal was charged on Jan. 2 with DWI. He pleaded guilty the same afternoon to a gross misdemeanor.
Atwal’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, said Friday that Atwal “made regrettable statements to the arresting officer.”
“Judge Atwal is saddened and ashamed of his personal failure the night of his arrest,” Cotter said in a statement. “Judge Atwal continues to endeavor to earn and maintain the public trust every day in the courtroom and in his personal life.”
Atwal, who was assigned to Ramsey County District Court’s criminal division, remains a judge and has been re-assigned to handle child protection cases. The Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards is “looking into the matter,” said the board’s executive director Thomas Sipkins on Friday.
Michael Brodkorb, a blogger and former state Republican political operative, said he sought details in the case because he believed Atwal received special treatment as a judge. On Friday, he posted on Twitter a link to police reports he obtained through a public records request, and wrote that Atwal had played, ” ‘I am a judge card’ – but based on the police reports, it didn’t work.”
Brodkorb, who initially wrote about the case on medium.com in January, shared his own story of being involved in a serious DWI crash in 2013.
He said he was shocked Atwal was arrested, booked and pleaded guilty within 40 hours. He said he suspects the speed by which the case was handled allowed Atwal to avoid “the media circus.”
But Cotter and Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal, whose office handled the case to avoid a conflict for their St. Paul counterparts, said Friday that Atwal received no special treatment.
“He hired a defense attorney who reached out to our prosecutor - which any defense lawyer or defendant can do - and indicated the judge (Atwal) wanted to resolve the case,” Segal said. “… Any defendant can choose to resolve the case at their first appearance, and there’s nothing unusual or untoward about that process.”
Police reports, also obtained by the Pioneer Press from the city of Minneapolis on Friday, show St. Paul Police Sgt. Kent Cleveland was working a Ramsey County Safe and Sober Detail about 12:45 a.m. Jan. 1 when he saw a Nissan Altima speeding on John Ireland Boulevard. Atwal was the driver.
Cleveland pulled Atwal over and told him he hadn’t stopped at a stop sign near the state Capitol. “Sorry about that,” Atwal responded, according to Cleveland’s report. The officer noted that Atwal’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy, his face was flushed and he smelled of alcohol.
Cleveland asked Atwal if he had been drinking. Atwal responded he had a couple of beers. “Moments later Atwal said he had 2 glasses of wine and a gin & tonic,” the police report continued.
After Atwal struggled with field sobriety tests, he asked the officer to “just allow him to walk home to his apartment,” the police report said. He lived about a block away.
The officer took him into custody. A breath test showed Atwal’s alcohol concentration was 0.17; the legal limit to drive in Minnesota is 0.08.
Atwal pleaded guilty to DWI, a gross misdemeanor. During his court appearance, Atwal apologized, saying, “I can’t express in words the remorse I feel.”
Most of Atwal’s sentence was stayed and he served 18 days on electronic home monitoring. He received two years supervised probation.
“He has served his sentence and began the path to better himself through counseling,” Cotter said. “At no time did he receive special treatment or minimize his conduct. He was given a sentence that was consistent with all other similarly situated citizens.”