We must return today to the tragic and frustrating case involving South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who recently took a plea deal in connection with the motor vehicle death of a pedestrian along a Hyde County highway on the night of Sept. 12, 2020. Last week in this space, we called for his resignation.

It has been pointed out frequently that Ravnsborg faced only misdemeanor charges in connection with the incident, and each charge was tied specifically to how he operated his vehicle that night, not to the taking of the life of the victim, Joseph Boever.

As it turns out, that was not the preferred prosecutorial approach of some law enforcement officials.

Last week, at the behest of Gov. Kristi Noem, the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees the South Dakota Highway Patrol, turned over documentation on the case to the speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives as part of a legislative inquiry and possible impeachment proceedings. In a cover letter attached to the documentation, DPS Secretary Craig Price said he believes the attorney general should have been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the case.

“The prosecution team was well aware of that position,” Price wrote. “The South Dakota Highway Patrol stood ready and willing to provide expert testimony regarding the crash and the facts of this investigation at trial, a position that was also made clear to the prosecutor.”

(This adds somewhat more background to the fact that three state law enforcement agencies — the South Dakota Fraternal Order of Police, the South Dakota Chiefs of Police Association and the South Dakota Sheriffs Association — issued a joint statement earlier this year calling on Ravnsborg to resign.)

However, prosecutor Michael Moore told the Rapid City Journal the prosecution was limited by South Dakota law. Noting that the state does not have a negligent homicide law, Moore said there was no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the attorney general’s actions satisfied the legal definition of “reckless behavior,” the Highway Patrol’s clear willingness to testify notwithstanding.

Ravnsborg was originally charged with careless driving, driving outside his lane and driving while on a phone. As part of a plea deal, he pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000 for the latter two misdemeanor offenses.

“They should only be pointing fingers at themselves,” Moore said of lawmakers critical of the prosecution and the plea deal. “If the governor wanted that to be a law, let’s see it. Propose it in the next legislative session. If the legislators want it to be a law, propose it in the next legislative session. But quit criticizing the criminal justice system because we’re bound by what you tell us to do and we followed the law in this case.”

As such, the Legislature should look into the legal definitions addressed in this case, as well as the logic that led to the filing of the misdemeanor charges against the attorney general. This likely wouldn’t fit into the scope of any potential impeachment proceedings, but it could separately address a lot of questions that really do demand answers.   

This has been a tragic case with an unsatisfying outcome, at least in the criminal courts. There needs to be a full explanation about why Ravnsborg didn’t face the kind of prosecutorial response that, one suspects, most other people may well have confronted in a similar tragedy. We also must come to terms with what the law is or should be to appropriately address such a matter in the future.

kmh

(3) comments

DLJohnson

I understand the political nature of this issue and the political motivation behind delivering the material for impeachment. I also understand the negative impact to the image of the Attorney General and his loss of political capital. He has lost the support of the three largest law enforcement groups, FOP, Police Chief's Association and South Dakota Sheriff's Association. That and loss of support of the governor are all nails in the career coffin. His driving habits do not appear to be helping his image.

It appears that Secretary Price believes the Attorney General's action of lane driving and being on his phone to meet the definition of recklessness to satisfy the elements of 2nd Degree Manslaughter under current South Dakota law, (import a conscious and unjustifiable disregard of a substantial risk that the offender's conduct may cause a certain result or may be of a certain nature). It appears that one of the prosecutors, Attorney Moore, believes that he could not prove reckless, as defined in the law, beyond a reasonable doubt.

I understand that State Troopers and many other law enforcement officers are equipped with mobile data terminals in which they are dispatched via the call appearing on their terminal screen. And from time to time they may have to glance down at their screen for updates while responding. I am wondering if Secretary Price views this conduct as recklessness?

I hope that the legislature does not have a knee jerk reaction and reduce the threshold to what is considered reckless under the law. It could have a negative effect and place law enforcement officers in jeopardy of prosecution for using their mobile data terminals while responding to calls.

JMDrury

Please tell me you are not putting a man known to speeding, driving at night and messing with his phone in the same category as an officer of the law checking a screen for updates while responding to a call? An officer checking his screen is a necessary evil of the job. Some politician messing with his phone was not crucial, anyone of us would be in trouble for texting and driving as it is negligent, and according to SD driving laws when a person behaves in a negligent manner and a person is killed as a result, it is referred to as Vehicular Homicide and the punishment is "

Vehicular homicide is a class 3 felony in South Dakota. Convicted motorists face up to 15 years in prison and a maximum $30,000 in fines. A vehicular homicide conviction also leads to a license revocation of at least ten years."

But no Ravnsborg got minor fines and slap on the wrist, yes his political career will be in shambles but that "punishment" doesn't fit the crime.

If it was ANYONE else that this horrible incident happened to they would be in prison, plain and simple.

DLJohnson

JMDrury,......Please read the entire Vehicular Homicide Statute. The statute requires the person charged to have been under the influence of alcohol, drugs or substances while operating or driving a vehicle of any kind in a negligent manning causing the death. It appears that under the influence was not an element of the Ravnsborg case. This means he could not be charged with violating that statute.

I agree that driving and texting is negligent conduct. However, you seem to have difficulty recognizing that Negligent has a much lower threshold than Reckless. If the legislature enact laws that reclassifies those negligent acts as reckless acts, all persons, including police officers, doing them would be deemed to be reckless. What you call a necessary evil of doing the job would then be defined as a reckless act. I don't think that is a can of worms you want opened.

Your last comment is not true. And I would challenge you to provide documented evidence to the contrary. Your political zealousness is having a negative affect on your ability to reason. There are many cases where the facts do not find evidence of acts that are identified as reckless as defined in law.

If you can only charge class 2 misdemeanor crimes you can only impose class 2 misdemeanor punishments for those crimes. It appears that more is coming Ravnsborg' s way such as impending impeachment and a civil case.

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