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.