South Dakota's Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was charged Thursday with three 2nd-class misdemeanors for his role in a car accident that killed a man who was walking down the side of a highway in September.
Hyde County Assistant State Attorney Emily Sovell announced the charges during a press conference, noting they were the most severe she could bring against the top law enforcement official in the state given the available evidence.
Ravnsborg has been charged with operating a vehicle while using a mobile electronic device, illegal lane change and careless driving. Each carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and fines of $500 each.
Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore, who was part of a team of prosecutors who worked on the case, explained that Ravnsborg could not be charged with vehicular homicide because such a charge requires the driver of the vehicle to be intoxicated.
"Recklessness is an extremely high burden for us to establish and in this case we don't have it," Moore said. "I don't feel good about it but it's the right decision."
Ravnsborg was driving home alone after attending a GOP fundraiser at a bar on September 12 when, at about 9:20 p.m., he fatally struck Joe Boever, 55, along the side of Highway 14.
Initially the attorney general said he believed he'd struck a deer or some other large animal. He said as much in a 911 call following the crash and when law enforcement arrived, they were unable to locate the object he'd hit.
"I didn't see what I hit and stopped my vehicle immediately to investigate," Ravnsborg said, in a two-page letter to the Argus Leader.
But when Ravnsborg returned to the scene of the accident the following day, he discovered Boever's body and realized he'd actually killed the man. He then drove to the sheriff's home to tell him about his discovery, the newspaper reported.
"Officials said a toxicology report taken roughly 15 hours after the crash showed no alcohol in Ravnsborg's system," the Associated Press reported.
But those results don't necessarily prove the attorney general had not been drinking or was not above the legal limit at the time of the fatal crash; "Even someone who had been drinking heavily would not have alcohol show up in their system 15 hours later," an expert told the wire service.
On Thursday Sovell and Moore said cell phone evidence shows "Ravnsborg and the sheriff walked by the body the night Boever was struck, confirming the Attorney General's account of his actions that night in which he says he searched the ditch hoping to figure out what had collided with his vehicle," according to the AP.
The investigation also showed Ravnsborg was driving 67 mph — 2 miles over the speed limit — at time of impact.
Boever was walking on the dark road on Saturday night because he was walking to his own vehicle, which had been left in a ditch earlier in the day.
Gov. Kristi Noem did not remark on the specifics of Sovell's decision to pursue misdemeanor charges. Instead, Noem said, "My heart goes out to Joseph Boever's family." She also said she is "directing the Department of Public Safety to share additional details of the investigation with the public within the next week."
Boever's cousin Nick Nemec, who was called to identify the body, told Keloland News he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision Thursday, noting that South Dakota's law is "weak on this point."