South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has been charged with three misdemeanors—but will face no felony charges—after allegedly striking and killing a man with his car while returning home from a political fundraiser in September.
Ravnsborg has been charged with operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile electronic device, careless driving and a lane driving violation for the Sept. 12 crash that claimed the life of 55-year-old Joseph Boever. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail or up to a $500 fine.
Hyde County State’s Attorney Emily Sovell, whose office handled the months-long investigation, announced the charges against Ravnsborg Thursday in a press conference streamed by South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
Sovell said while she knew there had been speculation about whether there would be some type of manslaughter or homicide charge in the case, prosecutors lacked the necessary evidence to justify the more serious charges.
In a statement through a private spokesperson, Ravnsborg said the decision affirmed his belief that “our legal system continues to work,” according to the Grand Forks Herald.
“I have and will continue to pray for Joe Boever and his family,” Ravnsborg said. “I cannot imagine their pain and loss and I do send my deepest condolences to them.”
Scott Heidepriem, an attorney for Boever’s widow Jenny Boever, said she plans to file a civil lawsuit in the death.
“The family deserves answers to what happened that night,” he told the local paper. “The attorney general should be held accountable for his actions just like anyone else.”
Boever was killed just before 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 as he was walking along the north shoulder of Highway 14, Sovell said.
Ravnsborg had been driving a red 2011 Ford Taurus along the highway on his way home from a Republican fundraiser at Roosters Bar & Grill earlier that night.
Investigators determined that Ravnsborg left the lane of travel at some point before the crash, striking and killing Boever.
Ravnsborg immediately pulled over and called 911 but initially told authorities that he believed he had hit a deer. Boever’s body was not discovered until the next day when Ravnsborg was assessing the damage and debris in the area, despite local law enforcement and Ravnsborg’s attempts to surveil the area the night of the crash.
“We know from the phone records that Ravnsborg walked the area of the accident and actually walked by the area where Mr. Boever was and he was using the flash light on his phone at the time,” Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore, who also reviewed the case, said at the press conference Thursday.
It’s not clear why Boever’s body wasn't discovered until the next day.
A tow truck was called to haul Ravnsborg’s damaged vehicle away from the scene and Ravnsborg was provided a “courtesy vehicle” from law enforcement officers to drive himself home, Sovell said.
Authorities said while Ravnsborg had been on his cell phone before the crash—resulting in the charge for using the phone while driving—he had not been on the phone at the time of the crash, according to cell phone records.
According to Sovell, the case did not meet the requirements for vehicular homicide because in the state of South Dakota it would have required the driver to be under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other substances and required evidence that the driver had acted in a negligent way to cause the death of another person.
The toxicology tests—which were conducted 15 hours after the accident—did not find any evidence of alcohol or drug use, Sovell said.
“There was a very, very thorough investigation conducted for every step that was taken in the hours preceding and nothing was indicative of him being under the influence of any alcohol or drugs,” she said.
The case also did not meet the requirements for second-degree manslaughter, she said, because the charge required prosecutors to reach a high evidence threshold to prove the acts had been reckless and not merely negligent.
“There’s no evidence 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 told reporters. “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 if Ravnsborg realized he was outside the lane of travel.”
Moore added that the state would need to prove that “Ravnsborg was aware of the dangerous nature of his conduct” at the time of the accident.
“No such evidence exists. At best his conduct was negligent, which is insufficient to bring criminal charges in South Dakota,” he said.
Moore said that while he did not feel good about the decision, he believed it was the “right decision.”
“Obviously when a person dies, we want to know what happened but we are limited by the investigation and by the facts,” he said. “There’s just nowhere else to go.”
Sovell affirmed that she had to follow the evidence in the case.
“Prosecutors' jobs … are to look at the facts, look at the evidence, apply the laws and the standards they are provided and that’s exactly what’s been done in this case,” she said.
Boever’s cousin Nick Nemec, who had been in the press room Thursday, said he had anticipated this result.
“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” he said, according to the local paper. “I’d been saying for months, ‘I think he’ll be charged with crossing the white line.’ And that’s exactly what he got charged with.”
The Democratic Party of South Dakota has called for Ravnsborg to resign.
“[Ravnsborg] cannot serve as the Chief Prosecutor, Chief Law Enforcement Officer, and South Dakota’s lawyer when your careless and negligent conduct caused the death of another person,” the Democratic Party said in a statement obtained by local station KELO.
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