PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota House on Tuesday impeached state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg over a 2020 car crash in which he killed a pedestrian but initially said he might have struck a deer or another large animal.
Ravnsborg, a Republican, is the first official to be impeached in South Dakota history. He will at least temporarily be removed from office pending the historic Senate trial, where it takes a two-thirds majority to convict on impeachment charges.
Ravnsborg pleaded no contest last year to a pair of traffic misdemeanors in the crash, including making an illegal lane change. He has cast Joseph Boever’s death as a tragic accident.
In voting 36-31 to impeach Ranvsborg, the Republican-controlled House charged him with committing crimes that caused someone’s death, making “numerous misrepresentations” to law enforcement officers after the crash and using his office to navigate the criminal investigation.
“When we’re dealing with the life of one of your citizens, I think that weighed heavily on everyone,” said Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, who introduced the articles of impeachment.
A spokesman for Ravnsborg did not reply to a request for comment after the vote. Tim Bormann, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said his staff would “professionally dedicate ourselves” to their work while Ranvsborg is forced to take a leave.
Ravnsborg, who took office in 2019, was returning home from a Republican dinner in September 2020 when he struck and killed Boever, who was walking along a rural highway. A sheriff who responded after Ravnsborg called 911 initially reported it as a collision with an animal. Ravnsborg has said he did not realize he hit a man until he returned the next day and found the body.
The Highway Patrol concluded that Ravnsborg’s car crossed completely onto the highway shoulder before hitting Boever, and criminal investigators said later that they didn’t believe some of Ravnsborg’s statements.
The House rejected the recommendation of a GOP-backed majority report from a special investigative committee, which argued that anything wrong he did was not part of his official duties “in office.” But even Republican lawmakers who argued his actions did not meet constitutional grounds for impeachment said Ravnsborg should resign.
“He should have stepped down, should have done the honorable thing,” said House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican who oversaw the House investigation and voted against impeachment.
All eight House Democrats voted for impeachment, while Republicans were split, with 28 voting for it and 31 against. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Scott Odenbach, recused himself because he had given legal advice to the attorney general after the crash.
Ravnsborg, who had been largely silent about the crash and was not present for the vote, sent lawmakers a pair of defiant letters Monday night urging them not to impeach him.
“In a few hours, your vote will set a precedent for years to come,” Ravnsborg wrote. “No state has ever impeached an elected official for a traffic accident.”
He also accused Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of interfering in the investigation and of supporting impeachment because of the attorney general’s investigations into her behavior. A second letter from Ravnsborg’s spokesman delved into “evidence, allegations and misconceptions” about the case.
After Ravnsborg fell out with the governor after the crash, he pushed a pair of ethics complaints against Noem to the state’s Government Accountability Board. His office is also investigating whether an organization aligned with the governor broke campaign finance disclosure laws.
Noem lauded the vote on Twitter, writing that the House “did the right thing for the people of South Dakota and for Joe Boever’s family.”
For Boever’s family, who held his wedding photo as they watched from the House gallery during the vote, the decision brought some relief. They have decried the criminal prosecution as a “slap on the wrist” for Ravnsborg.
“We’re a step closer to justice. We’re not done,” said Boever’s cousin, Nick Nemec.
“Now we just need the Senate’s help on this because these laws need to be changed badly,” said Jennifer Boever, who was married to Boever.
“People are getting hurt and killed, and the pedestrian has no self-defense against a 4,000 pound (1,814 kilogram) vehicle.”