Charges filed Monday against a St. Paul Park man for his suspected 20th drunken driving offense are spurring calls for tough measures to prevent repeat offenders from getting behind the wheel.

Paul D. Garay, 55, faces only gross misdemeanors, carrying a maximum jail sentence of one year. Minnesota law make a fourth offense within 10 years a felony punishable by three years in prison and a fine of not less than $14,000, but only two of Garay's previous convictions occurred within the past decade, said Newport City Prosecutor Frederic (Fritz) Knaak. Had Garay had three convictions within a decade, a fourth charge would have been a felony.

For Mother's Against Drunk Drivers, his repeated violations -- the latest occurred Christmas Eve -- are clear examples of the need for mandatory drunken driving sentences that include ignition interlock devices for every convicted drunken driver. The devices require a person to blow into them periodically; if alcohol is detected the car will not start or continue running.

"It's very irritating that the law has not caught up to folks like this," said Lynne Goughler of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in Minnesota. "It's scary. He's not done harm to anyone else, or property, just to himself. But the odds are that he will at some point hurt somebody, or drive into their property."

James Backstrom, Dakota County attorney and an advocate for tougher drunken driving laws, agreed.

"Someone with 19 DWIs certainly should be charged with a felony, regardless of how many occurred in the last 10 years," he said Monday. "There should be a lifetime limit to enable a felony to be charged."

Doug Johnson, Washington County attorney, said he believes that the only way to reduce repeat drunken driving offenses is to exact hefty jail sentences for first offenses. Johnson points to Europe, where laws are much stricter and drunken driving far less common.

The real problem, said Johnson, is that Minnesota taxpayers don't want to pay the expenses for more jail time. He said getting tough with first-time offenders would get drunks off the roads while making use of plenty of empty beds in Minnesota jails.

Knaak, a White Bear Lake attorney and former state senator, called Garay's "an extraordinary case." He said the state's DWI laws are generally working and have cut recidivism, including cracking down especially hard on second-time offenders.

Garay's latest violation was spotted by a trooper assigned to a drunken driver enforcement detail. He saw Garay just before 6:30 p.m. on a freeway entrance ramp at northbound Hwy. 61 and Interstate 494, his car stuck in the snow bank, facing the wrong way.

"I know I did wrong. I've been sober for seven years ..." Garay told troopers. "I know I screwed up."

He appeared Monday in Washington County District Court, charged with two counts of second-degree drunken driving. According to the complaint, he registered a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent, which is twice the legal limit. He's also charged with a third-degree gross misdemeanor for allegedly violating his restricted driver's license.

District Judge Mary Hannon noted that Garay was released from prison in October 2006 while serving a 90-month sentence on a drug conviction. He still has 10 months left to serve on that sentence.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017