South Dakota's AG to pay thousands in fines but avoids jail time for deadly crash
Staving off a two-day trial, Jason Ravnsborg changed his plea to "no contest" on Thursday in Stanley County Courthouse to two counts of traffic charges. Ravnsborg did not appear, but family members of the victim, Joe Boever, broke their silence, with his sister accusing the AG of "cowardly behavior" in his behavior since the crash.
FORT PIERRE, S.D. — Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota's top law enforcement official, will pay thousands in fines but serve no jail time for striking and killing a pedestrian in 2020.
Ravnsborg, the state attorney general, pleaded no contest Thursday morning, Aug. 26, to two, low-level misdemeanors.
In accepting Ravnsborg's plea on crossing a lane and use of a phone last September on the night he struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever on a highway west of Highmore, South Dakota, 6th Judicial Circuit Judge John Brown said he found the attorney general guilty, putting to rest an 11-month criminal investigation that will almost certainly be followed by a civil lawsuit.
Ravnsborg did not appear in the Stanley County Courthouse Thursday. Instead he was represented by attorney Tim Rensch, who railed against what he called a "homicide case"-like atmosphere in the courtroom. He also called absurd accusations that Ravnsborg knowingly left Boever to die in a ditch on Sept. 12, 2020, or benefited from his position as the attorney general to avoid culpability.
"What happened out there that night could've happened to anybody," said Rensch, with Boever's family looking on. "Anybody who has gone across rumble strips knows that it happens."
Brown ultimately agreed with Rensch in dismissing calls for Ravnsborg to repay Boever's mother for the funeral costs last fall. But the judge also rejected Rensch's calls to suspend imposing any sentence on Ravnsborg, calling the legal fight not a "typical case," and fining Ravnsborg $500 for each of the two misdemeanors and charging him with over $3,000 in costs bore by Hyde County officials in handling the high-profile case.
Brown found Ravnsborg guilty of both illegally changing lanes and using a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle. According to the plea deal, lead prosecutor Emily Sovell dropped the third charge of distracted driving. All the charges were misdemeanor charges.
Prosecutors in February announced that evidence in the case did not warrant a more severe charge , such as vehicular homicide, as Ravnsborg was not drinking the night of the crash. The state's second-degree manslaughter charge requires a "reckless" conduct, which prosecutors said they determined didn't match the AG's actions the night of the crash.
"I understand the outcome here leaves a lot of questions unanswered," Brown said before adjourning the Thursday morning hearing. "No result here is going to satisfy everyone or perhaps anyone."
Sovell, the Sully County Assistant State's Attorney, had sought — with encouragement from the Boever family — to require Ravnsborg to perform public service announcements or training around safe driving.
While cellphone data shows Ravnsborg's phone was locked at the time of the impact with Boever, he had been using his phone to search websites just a minute prior, while still east of Highmore on the night of the crash.
But after Brown announced he would "require" Ravnsborg to "do a significant public service event over a period of five years, once each year" on the Sept. 12 anniversary, Rensch objected that the judge overstepped the 30-day sentence allowed under a class-two misdemeanor's authority.
"We'll withhold the entry of the judgment," responded Brown, requesting written arguments from the counsel on that PSA penalty.
The Thursday event opened with dramatic testimony from both Boever's sister, Jane Boever, and his widow, Jenny Boever, who spoke publicly for the first time about their reactions to Joe's death and their difficulties over the last year. Those difficulties were exacerbated by Ravnsborg's refusal to publicly acknowledge the killing, his prolonged legal fight, and his refusal to appear in court, they said.
"His cowardly behavior leaves us frustrated and makes moving on [difficult]," Jane Boever said. "Why after having to wait nearly a year do we not have the chance to face him?"
Jenny Boever, who has hired a Sioux Falls attorney to potentially bring a civil lawsuit against Ravnsborg, was even more condemning of the Republican AG in her rhetoric, documenting her own anxiousness, rage, and overwhelming sadness. In the year since her husband's death, "My life has become incomprehensible," she said.
"This was not an unfortunate accident," Jenny Boever said in an emotional address captured on the live audio feed of Thursday's proceedings. "This was a reckless action on his [Ravnsborg's] part."
Before Brown's sentence, Sovell also acknowledged that she'd spoken with Boever's family and that the "recompense they seek cannot be given in this court today."
In a statement later in the day on Thursday, Ravnsborg apologized to the Boevers, acknowledging that the death "weighs heavily on me."
"I've often wondered why the accident occurred and all the things that had to have happened to make our lives intersect," Ravnsborg said.
Ravnsborg also blamed the media for "many untrue, and misleading things," as well as "partisan opportunists" for trying to "take others down at any cost."
Regarding what's next, Ravnsborg said, "I do not know all the Lord has in store for me, but I trust Him."
Ravnsborg's future may depend upon keeping the confidence of Republican leadership in Pierre, which has been tenuous at least on the second floor of the Statehouse.
Gov. Kristi Noem again called on Ravnsborg to resign and said that, if he doesn't, the House of Representatives should pick up the articles of impeachment they initially brought only to sideline after Brown issued a gag order.
"Ravnsborg has not accepted responsibility for the death of Joseph Boever and did not even appear in court today to face the charges or the Boever family," said Noem, in a statement.
The governor attempted to pressure Ravnsborg in February after she authorized the release of hours of interview by North Dakota law enforcement agents of Ravnsborg — a decision the judge ultimately criticized in yanking down the video from the Department of Public Safety website.
Nevertheless, Noem said on Thursday she intended to provide House Speaker Spencer Gosch with a "complete copy of the investigation file" in the coming days.
The call for Ravnsborg's resignation was echoed by the South Dakota Democratic Party, as well, on Thursday, with SDDP Chair Randy Seiler saying that after the AG"s "conviction," his staying on as the state's top attorney "undermines the integrity of the office."