DFP Preserves Ravnsborg Videos; Release Serves Public Interest
We might never have gotten a look at killer Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s police interviews if his lawyer hadn’t been distracted.
Bob Mercer posts the defense motion filed yesterday that secured Judge John Brown’s order removing the videos from the Department of Public Safety website (and, it appears, from the DPS YouTube channel) and slapping a gag order on DPS, law enforcement, and any member of state government from releasing any further information related to State v. Ravnsborg and the three misdemeanor charges our Attorney General faces for the actions that led to pedestrian Joe Boever’s instant death on Highway 14 on September 12. Judge Brown specifically named Governor Kristi Noem as one of the state government members who need to keep their traps shut about Ravnsborg, just hours after the Governor promised to release more information from the investigation of the fatal crash.
As the Governor’s Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price said yesterday at the Governor’s side, releasing the Ravnsborg investigation videos was legal and proper because they deal with a public official in a case of enormous public interest. Price’s contention fits the argument offered by Mercer himself in November 2013 when he requested the release of records from the investigation of the suspicious death of former state economic development secretary Richard Benda. Then-Attorney General Marty Jackley agreed that the Benda case was of great public interest and agreed to give the media access to redacted Benda investigation records if Benda’s family gave consent. The only reason Mercer did not get those records was that Benda’s family wouldn’t consent to the release. The courts acknowledged that state officials have discretion to release such documents and may impose conditions like Jackley’s on their release; had Mercer met those conditions, the release would have been legal.
In the Ravnsborg case, the public interest is even greater than in the Benda case, because Ravnsborg is a sitting elected official and our top law enforcement officer. In the Benda case, Mercer was just trying to get access to documents on Benda’s death, not on the crimes Benda committed in South Dakota’s corrupt EB-5 program. In the Ravnsborg case, we are concerned with whether Ravnsborg himself committed a crime and then lied to the public about it. As Secretary Price, a former Highway Patrol chief, said yesterday, the badge Ravnsborg has on his dashboard “carries significant responsibilities” and “requires us to have honor, integrity, character and requires us to tell the truth every single time.”
In apparent nod to the Mercer/Jackley precedent, the Governor obtained consent from Joe Boever’s family to release the Ravnsborg interviews, which contained horrifying details about Boever’s death. She promised to obtain that consent for releases of further information. The Governor wasn’t required to adopt that condition, but is was nice of her.
Given the clear public interest served by the release of these investigation materials, and given that the court can’t recork that bottle, I repost the videos the state legally released:
Ravnsborg’s defense motion cites the Mercer/Jackley ruling, ignoring the court’s recognition of the state’s right to release such information in the public interest and instead misrepresenting the Mercer precedent as an argument for protecting the defendant’s right to a fair trial. No right to fair trial was at stake in the Benda case. There is definitely an argument to be had that Ravnsborg can’t get a fair trail in this state, although that argument could have been made before the state’s release of the Ravnsborg videos Tuesday, based solely on pre-trial publicity (and, maybe on the prosecution side, the rampant Republican cronyism that could insulate any prominent Republican in this one-party state from being held accountable), but Mercer doesn’t make that argument; Mercer is all about public interest versus privacy, and in the Ravnsborg case, Ravnsborg as a public official has far less claim to privacy with respect to his criminal actions than did Richard Benda’s family with respect to autopsy records and other information about his untimely demise.
Ravnsborg nonetheless won this brief victory in court, shutting down the state’s distribution of documents of public interest. However, Ravnsborg could have stopped those videos from hitting the press if he’d picked a lawyer who didn’t go travel during the height of his case. Attorney Timothy J. Rensch of Rapid City is defending Ravnsborg. In his motion, Rensch notes that he would have filed for a gag order Tuesday if he hadn’t been out of state:
On Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021, the undersigned was informed that Governor Kristi Noem was going to have a press conference regarding Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and release information created during the criminal investigation process.
The undersigned sent an email to the prosecutor and to the Court requesting immediate relieg due to the emergent nature of the situation.
At that time there was not sufficient information to file a formal motion, and the undersigned is out of state and was not able to coordinate such with his staff [Timothy Rensch, defense motion, State v. Ravnsborg, 2021.02.25, p. 1].
Talk about a bad week: the Governor and his party turn against him, and his own paid lawyer can’t stick around town to file motions to save his sorry keester from the Governor’s obvious pressure campaign and his ensuing public disgrace. Had Rensch been in town (or just better at leaving instructions for his law partners or getting on Zoom or whatever it takes to file a motion from the road), he could have gotten Judge Brown to issue his gag order by suppertime Tuesday, and none of us would have seen the videos and learned that Ravnsborg was scrolling through websites on his phone minutes, perhaps seconds before he hit Joe Boever with his car. None of us would know that investigators found Boever’s glasses inside Jason’s car, proving that Boever’s face went through Jason’s windshield. None of us would know that GPS and step data from Ravnsborg’s phone show that he walked past Boever’s body twice at the side of the road that night. None of us would know that Joe Boever’s flashlight was still on, lying beside him in the grass at the edge of the road and shining like, in the investigator’s word, a “beacon”, and that Ravnsborg did not see that light in the darkness. None of us would know that Ravsnborg saw Boever’s pickup truck in the ditch but didn’t put two and two together that maybe what he had hit was not a deer but the owner of that truck.
Judge Brown’s gag order two days earlier would have withheld all those facts, at least temporarily, from the public. Judge Brown’s order, for the moment, prevents the state from releasing more facts about Jason Ravnsborg’s killing of Joe Boever and his subsequent statements inconsistent with those facts.
Governor Noem is headed out of state this weekend, so she, like Attorney Rensch, may be delayed in taking further action. But if she wants to continue her campaign to pressure Ravnsborg to resign, she may want to appeal Judge Brown’s gag order. The Mercer/Jackley precedent and the law in general are on her side. She has already beaten Ravnsborg in court once this year, and beaten him so soundly that he surrendered without appeal. Maybe the Governor will treat us again to the spectacle of challenging her own Attorney General in court… and this time, that challenge would be in the public interest.
Related Documents of Public Interest: Curiously, Ravnsborg sought the removal of the two interview videos from the DPS website, but he did not seek removal of the other information DPS has posted from its investigation of Ravnsborg’s killing of Joe Boever. In case he notices and asks Judge Brown to expand his gag order, here are all of the Ravnsborg documents DPS has posted so far:
- Audio from Jason Ravnsborg’s 911 call, 2020.09.12:
- Transcript of Jason Ravnsborg 911 call
- South Dakota Highway Patrol Accident Report, approved 2020.10.30.