FORT PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg pleaded no contest Thursday to a pair of misdemeanor traffic charges over a crash last year that killed a pedestrian, avoiding jail time despite bitter complaints from the victim’s family that he was being too lightly punished for actions they called “inexcusable.”
Circuit Judge John Brown had little leeway to order jail time. Instead, he fined the state’s top law enforcement official $500 for each of the two counts and ordered him to pay court costs of $3,742. Brown also ordered the Republican attorney general to “do a significant public service event” in each of the next five years near the date of Joseph Boever’s death — granting a request from the Boever family. But he put that on hold after Ravnsborg’s attorney objected that it was not allowed by statute.
Brown was to consider that argument and rule later.
Ravnsborg said in a statement after the hearing that he plans to remain in office. The plea capped the criminal portion of a case that led Gov. Kristi Noem — a fellow Republican — and law enforcement groups around the state to no longer support him. But it didn’t end his troubles, as he still faces a likely lawsuit from Boever’s widow and a potential impeachment attempt.
In his statement, he accused “partisan opportunists” of exploiting the situation and said they had “manufactured rumors, conspiracy theories and made statements in direct contradiction to the evidence all sides agreed upon.”
The attorney general was driving home to Pierre from a political fundraiser on Sept. 12 when he struck the 55-year-old Boever, who was walking on the side of a highway. In a 911 call after the crash, Ravnsborg was initially unsure about what he hit and then concluded it had been a deer. He said he didn’t realize he struck a man until he returned to the crash scene the next day and discovered the body of Boever, who was killed at age 55.
Ravnsborg pleaded no contest to charges of making an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving, which each carry a sentence of up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. He had been charged with three misdemeanors, but prosecutors dropped a careless driving charge as part of the deal.
A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for the purposes of sentencing.
Ravnsborg didn’t attend the hearing — he didn’t have to and was represented by his attorney, Tim Rensch. That angered Boever’s family.
“Why, after having to wait nearly a year, do we not have the chance to face him?” Boever’s sister, Jane Boever, asked the court, adding “his cowardly behavior leaves us frustrated.”
She said her brother was “left behind carelessly” the night he died. And she accused Ravnsborg of running down her brother and then using his position and resources to string the case along. She said he has shown no remorse, and only “arrogance toward the law.”
Jane Boever was also frustrated with the prosecution’s handling of the case and called the punishment on misdemeanor charges “a slap on the wrist.”
“Our brother lay in the ditch for 12 hours,” she said. “This is inexcusable.”
Joseph Boever’s widow, Jennifer Boever, said Ravnsborg’s “actions are incomprehensible and … cannot be forgiven.”
Rensch pushed back hard on the family’s criticism, calling the attorney general an “honorable man.” Rensch said Ravsnborg had been consistent from the beginning that he simply did not see Boever. And he noted that the case was “not a homicide case, and it’s not a manslaughter case,” as prosecutors had said in bringing the misdemeanor charges.
“Accidents happen, people die. It should not happen. No one wants anybody to die,” he said.
Rensch emphatically told reporters after the hearing that Ravnsborg had cooperated fully with investigators by sitting down for two interviews with detectives and allowing his phones to be analyzed.
“Basically just take your shirt off and say, ‘Here I am, bring it on.’ I’ll answer anything you’ve got, and that’s what this guy did,” Rensch said.
Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, one of the prosecutors, agreed with Rensch that the attorney general had been cooperative. He was also satisfied with Ravnsborg’s punishment and the crash investigation.
“Because of who it was and the high profile nature of the case, the investigation was a lot more thorough,” he said.
After a months-long investigation led to prosecutors charging Ravnsborg with the three misdemeanors in February, Noem placed maximum pressure on Ravnsborg to resign, releasing videos of investigators questioning him after the crash. They revealed gruesome details, including that detectives believed Boever’s body had collided with Ravnsborg’s windshield with such force that part of his eyeglasses were deposited in the backseat of Ravnsborg’s car.
Rensch told reporters he thinks Noem treated Ravnsborg unfairly, saying he had been subjected to political attacks as the case moved forward. The judge barred state officials in February from divulging details of the investigation and ordered the interview videos removed from a state-run website.
Throughout the criminal investigation and political pressure campaign from his own party, Ravnsborg has adamantly denied he did anything wrong. He has insisted he had no idea he hit a man until returning to the crash site and that he is still worthy of remaining the state’s attorney general.
Prosecutors said Ravnsborg was on his phone roughly one minute before the crash, but phone records showed it was locked at the moment of impact. Ravnsborg told investigators that the last thing he remembered before impact was turning off the radio and looking down at the speedometer.
A toxicology report taken roughly 15 hours after the crash showed no alcohol in Ravnsborg’s system, and people who attended the fundraiser said he was not seen drinking alcohol.
However, the crash and investigation has opened a divide among Republicans. Noem tried repeatedly to force Ravnsborg from office but he has retained support among some GOP circles. The attorney general has even been spotted working booths for local Republican groups at county fairs in recent weeks.
The attorney general built his political rise on personal connections in the party. It was his dutiful attendance at local GOP events like the one he was returning from when he struck Boever that propelled him from being a party outsider to winning the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2018.
Ravnsborg’s popular predecessor, Marty Jackley, is already running for his old job and has collected the support of most of the state’s county prosecutors. Perhaps most pressing for Ravnsborg is that legislators are once again considering moving forward with impeachment proceedings.