For much of his adult life, Paul D. Garay was part of the revolving door defined by public policy that took a lax attitude toward drunken driving.

On July 1, Minnesota inaugurates the latest in a series of ever-tougher DWI laws that aims to slam that door shut. For the third time within a decade, the state is making major changes, including one that will require some offenders to have a breath-testing ignition lockout device on any vehicle they drive.

The changes are primarily aimed at habitual offenders such as Garay, who was recently sentenced to a year in jail for his 20th drunken-driving charge.

"I've watched people that you go 'You don't have a rock-bottom, there is no rock-bottom,'" said Peter Orput, Washington County attorney. "I can throw you in the joint, you get out, you drink again, you go back in the joint."

Garay is a prime example.

On a Friday afternoon in July 2000, Garay had a date in Ramsey County District Court on yet another charge of driving while intoxicated. St. Paul police had stopped him two months before. Records show he blew a 0.21 percent blood alcohol level on his breath test. The legal limit for driving in Minnesota is 0.08.

Garay, now 57, was accustomed to such encounters, part of a long history of DWI and DWI-related charges dating to when he was 20 years old.

The 2000 traffic stop yielded eight DWI-related charges, including one count of driving with a canceled license. He also was on probation from a previous drug charge, which required him to abstain from alcohol and drugs. Still, Garay was sent on his way after that court appearance.

If that arrest had happened just a couple of years later, after Minnesota began a series of major changes in its DWI laws, Garay likely would have been in jail.

Instead, just four days later, records show, Garay had another, more violent encounter with police. When stopped and asked how much he had been drinking, Garay told the officer, "Too much."

Garay's rap sheet includes DWI arrests in 1974, 1977, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998. After two arrests in 2000, Garay finally seemed to receive the message.

He got himself sober, said his attorney, Sam Surface. He worked hard to get his license back, along with car insurance. But on Christmas Eve 2009, the St. Paul Park man was arrested again, this time in Newport.

"I know I did wrong," he told state troopers. "... I screwed up."

Surface said Garay's decision to return to drinking was triggered by some emotional upheaval, "and he chose to react to that by drinking and then getting behind the wheel." Garay regrets his decision. "Paul didn't set out to be the poster boy for chronic drunken driving, but he is," Surface said. "And he's embarrassed by that."

Going after repeaters

Before 2002, there was no law addressing repeat drunken drivers, which is why Garay and others like him were able to rack up long arrest records. Before then, DWI was merely a gross misdemeanor. Now, four such arrests in a 10-year period mean a felony charge and serious prison time.

In Minnesota, one in 17 drivers has two or more DWI arrests, according to Brenda Thomas of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Four DWI arrests in 10 years "shows a pattern of complete disregard public safety," Orput said.

On July 1, first-time drunken-driving offenders who blow 0.16 percent or more, and every repeat offender, will have the option to have the breath-testing ignition lockout device on their vehicle. The device, a portable breath tester, keeps vehicles from being started if the blood-alcohol level is above 0.02 percent. They are monitored remotely.

"Will they circumvent it? I'm afraid they might," Orput said.

The devices cost $50 to install and remove, and another $100 a month to monitor, though costs could fall as their use becomes more widespread.

"It's a double-edged sword," Surface said. "It will allow people to get their driving privileges back so people can earn money and take care of their families. On the flip side, they aren't going to be cheap, and some people won't be able to pay for it."

For some people, Orput said, alcohol is simply too hazardous.

"What will it take for you to quit?" Orput said. "We've taken your car, we've thrown you in jail, we've fined the living daylights out of you, and you're still going to put that bottle to your lips?"

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999