South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has been charged with three misdemeanors after hitting and killing a man with his car outside of Highmore on Sept. 12.
Thursday’s announcement by Hyde County State’s Attorney Emily Sovell ended months of speculation that Ravnsborg could face more serious charges in the death of 55-year-old Joseph Boever, but it didn’t answer all the questions.
Ravnsborg faces one count of operating a motor vehicle while using an electronic device; one count of failing to drive vehicle in a single lane; and one count of careless driving. Sovell said Ravnsborg was not using an electronic device at the time of the incident but had been on a cell phone earlier.
The maximum penalty for each charge is up to 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
Sovell, speaking at a press conference at the state Capitol in Pierre, said Ravnsborg was alone Sept. 12 and driving his Ford Taurus west on Highway 14 through Hyde County. The vehicle had left the lane and was on the shoulder of the road when it struck Boever west of Highmore.
At 10:24 p.m., Ravnsborg called 911; his car was towed and the Hyde County Sheriff lent him a vehicle to get back to his home in Pierre. Ravnsborg returned the vehicle the next day and went back to the accident scene where he discovered Boever’s body, which Sovell said was “not very far off the lane of travel.” He reported his findings to the Sheriff.
Sovell said she did not know what Ravnsborg was doing at the moment of impact or how he didn’t notice Boever before the accident.
“It was a very dark night, this was in a rural area, it was not well lit,” she said. “I don’t have the answer to that.”
Sovell said there is not enough evidence to suggest anything more than careless driving. South Dakota does not have a negligent homicide law.
To be charged with reckless driving, Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore said during the press conference that attorneys must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driving was reckless and that there is a degree of disregard for human life and the safety of others. Careless driving is insufficient proof, Moore said, as a person must consciously disregard a substantial risk.
“There’s no evidence indicating that Ravnsborg’s travel outside the lane of travel was done in such a manner to suggest a reckless disregard for the safety of others,” Moore said. “We do not know when Ravnsborg left the lane of travel. We do not know why Ravnsborg was outside the lane of travel. We do not know that Ravnsborg realized he was outside the lane of travel. We must provide evidence...to include that Ravnsborg was aware of the dangerous nature of his conduct. No such evidence exists.”
“At best, his conduct was negligent, which is insufficient to bring criminal charges in South Dakota. As I mentioned, this is a tragic accident which took the life of Mr. Boever way too soon. The victim’s remedy is in civil court, not criminal court,” he said.
There are still blanks in the narrative that could align with a more serious charge, but with the facts attorneys have, they cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ravnsborg’s conduct was reckless.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Moore said. “When we don’t have a negligent homicide law in the state, we’re faced with recklessness. And recklessness...is an extremely high burden for us to establish. In this case, we don’t have it. I don’t feel good about it, but it’s the right decision.”
A day before the announcement, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson told the Capital Journal that he was “befuddled” as to why the investigation took five months. Gov. Kristi Noem has expressed the same sentiment several times.
Sovell said the case was “carefully and thoroughly investigated,” and to preserve the integrity of the process, politicians were shut out of the investigation so they couldn’t assert political influence. Prosecutors did not have any direct contact with Ravnsborg with respect to the accident, Sovell said.
Sovell said she respected the public’s “thirst for knowledge,” but that investigations are not public as they continue to develop. She said she was optimistic that the final evidence would be returned by December, which did not end up happening. She asserted it takes time to get results back from laboratories and to perform a full investigation, and that the investigation took so long is “not unrealistic.”
“It’s not a delay by anyone working on this case, it’s a smart decision by prosecutors to await all evidence,” Sovell said. “Mr. Ravnsborg was treated no different than any other person during these circumstances.”
Sovell said it is highly likely a special judge will be appointed and that the case may appear before a civil court. The attorneys acknowledged that Boever’s family is not happy with the decision.
Thursday afternoon, Ravnsborg released a statement that read, in part, “I appreciate, more than ever, that the presumption of innocence placed within our legal system continues to work. I have always practiced this in my professional life and I understand it even better now as I see that we live in a society where every person enjoys the protection of the law.”
Ravnsborg continued, “I have and will continue to pray for Joe Boever and his family. I cannot imagine their pain and loss and I do send my deepest condolences to them.”