In my discussion yesterday of Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price’s remarkable public statement that the evidence supported manslaughter charges against Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for his killing of Joseph Boever, I mentioned that the release of the criminal investigation records to Speaker Spencer Gosch, a legislator outside of law enforcement, makes those records public and should allow any interested reporter or other citizen to access those records.
At the end of his letter to Speaker Gosch, Secretary Price addresses whether the Ravnsborg investigation file is now a public record:
In the Department’s view, while this letter is a public record, the investigatory file is not subject to disclosure as a public record during the pendancy of the House’s investigation under SDCL 1-27-1.5(5). However, in the event you conclude the investigation file is in fact subject to release as a public record while in your custody, either in whole or in part, I would urge you, pursuant to SDCL 1-27-1.5(22), to redact those portions that may result in the unreasonable release of personal information relative to unrelated third-parties or medical information concerning Mr. Boever [link added; DPS Secretary Craig Price, letter to Speaker Spencer Gosch, 2021.09.01].
Secretary Price takes a distinctly relativist position on the public status of the Ravnsborg investigation records. Law enforcement investigation records are exempted from disclosure under the statute Price cites. Normally, one would expect that a law enforcement executive would state that exemption uncategorically: these are confidential documents; you can’t release them. But usually, a law enforcement executive wouldn’t get an order from the Governor saying, Hand these law enforcement documents to a person outside law enforcement. Secretary Price says his Department thinks the documents are still confidential (although his Department did not hold that view in February, when it released videos from that investigation), but he leaves the door wide open for Speaker Gosch to come to a different conclusion.
Secretary Price in translation: Mr. Speaker, we’re not going to release these records, but you should feel free to do so.
If Speaker Gosch gets the hint, what rationale might he use to justify releasing the Ravnsborg investigation records to the public?
We keep criminal investigation records confidential to protect due process. Ravnsborg has had due process; he has pled guilty, the judge has issued his sentence, and his trial his done.
Whenever records are released, as with those damning interrogation videos released back in February, once records get out, they are out. I copied those videos and archived them on Dakota Free Press right after Judge Brown ordered DPS to take the videos down. Those videos have been viewed widely and remain online to this day. I have faced no penalty or inquiry from law enforcement. Once a record is public, it remains public. If a record is released to one member of the public, like part-time legislator Speaker Gosch, it should be open to all members of the public.
Secretary Price bases his Department’s view that the Ravnsborg file is not public on the fifth exception defining certain records not open to inspection or copying:
Records developed or received by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies charged with duties of investigation or examination of persons, institutions, or businesses, if the records constitute a part of the examination, investigation, intelligence information, citizen complaints or inquiries, informant identification, or strategic or tactical information used in law enforcement training… [SDCL 1-27-1.5(5), excerpt, retrieved 2021.09.02].
Speaker Gosch is not law enforcement, but he is the leader of a public body, the House of Representatives, which may charge itself with the duty of a constitutionally authorized investigation of the Attorney General.
However, impeachment is a unique sort of investigation, a public matter seeking to remove a public official elected by the public. Investigating a public official with a view toward impeachment is a grave matter of utmost public interest. If the Legislature is considering removing from office an official the public has elected, the public has an overriding interest in seeing all evidence that legislators are viewing to lead them to such an action.
Secretary Price invoked overriding public interest when his department released the Ravnsborg interrogation videos in February. In 2013, then-Attorney General Marty Jackley invoked overriding public interest when he agreed to release redacted investigation materials relating to the death of former state economic development chief Richard Benda. And we are dealing now with impeachment, the first impeachment ever to come before the South Dakota Legislature.
Ravnsborg’s criminal trial is over. Ravnsborg’s records have been released to a legislator, a representative of the people outside of the usual law enforcement realm. The records have been released with consideration of impeachment, a matter of enormous public interest.
The Ravnsborg investigation records should thus be released to the public, so the voters may study and understand the evidence from the fatal September 12, 2020, discuss the matter with their elected representatives, and understand whether the grave remedy of impeachment will serve justice.