FORT PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg avoided any jail time Thursday after pleading no contest to two misdemeanor traffic charges for a crash last year in which he struck and killed a man who was walking along a rural highway.
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.
Circuit Judge John Brown ordered no jail time for Ravnsborg, instead fining him $500 for each of the two counts and ordering him to pay court costs. Brown also ordered Ravsnborg to “do a significant public service event” in each of the next five years near the date of 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 didn’t attend the hearing — he didn’t have to and was represented by his attorney, Tim Rensch. That angered the family of the man Ravnsborg struck, Joseph Boever.
“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.
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 also said Brown’s options for punishing him on the misdemeanor charges were insufficient: “We do not feel a couple of fines is adequate punishment for killing a man.”
“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.
The Republican attorney general was driving home to Pierre from a political fundraiser on Sept. 12 when he struck Joseph Boever, who walking on the side of a highway. In a 911 call after the crash, Ravnsborg was initially unsure of what he hit, then concluded it was 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.
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.
After a months-long investigation led to prosecutors filing three traffic misdemeanors in February, Gov. Kristi 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 Boever’s glasses were deposited in the backseat of Ravnsborg’s car.
Prosecutors said Ravnsborg was on his phone roughly one minute before the crash, and 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.
Throughout the criminal investigation and political pressure campaign from his own party, Ravnsborg has adamantly denied he did anything heinous. 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.
A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for the purposes of sentencing. However, criminal defense attorneys said it is unlikely Ravnsborg will be sentenced to any jail time.
“It’s not an admission of guilt, but a finding of guilt,” said criminal defense attorney Ryan Kolbeck, who has been watching the case but isn’t involved in it. “You rarely see jail time in these cases.”
However, the crash and investigation has opened a divide among Republicans. Noem has tried repeatedly to force Ravnsborg from office and make him a pariah within the party, 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.
“When people look at his record of achievements, they will find he’s done a good job,” said Republican state Rep. Steve Haugaard, an ally of the attorney general.
The attorney general had 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.
Despite the plea deal, Ravnsborg’s troubles are far from over. Boever’s widow has indicated that she plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Ravnsborg. And 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.
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