South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg on Thursday pleaded no contest plea to two misdemeanor traffic charges for a crash last year in which he hit 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.
The Republican attorney general was driving home to Pierre from a political fundraiser on Sept. 12 when he struck a man 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 Joseph 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.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.