Representative Ryan Cwach (D-18/Yankton) is a lawyer. He applies his sober lawyerly thinking to what he heard as a member of the House impeachment committee over the past few months and explains in this message to constituents why he voted, in the minority on the House impeachment committee, to impeach Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg:
614 feet. That’s the distance the Attorney General’s car travelled after hitting Joseph Boever at approximately 10:23 P.M. about one mile west of Highmore on September 12, 2020, according to South Dakota Highway Patrolman Sargent Kinney and his staff. Sgt. Kinney further testified to our Impeachment Committee that the average distance a vehicle travels in a similar collision, like with a deer, is 200 feet. The South Dakota Highway Patrol concluded that this discrepancy, in addition to the fact that the Attorney General’s car was completely on the shoulder, showed that the Attorney General was distracted by something at the time his car hit Mr. Boever.
According to their report, Mr. Boever’s face smashed through the passenger side front windshield, and became stuck there until velocity forced his face out. No one knows how long. Mr. Boever’s glasses flew off his face with part of his glasses dropping to the floor of the front passenger side and the other portions landing in the back seat. Mr. Boever’s mostly naked body, half of his clothes were torn away, then rolled into the ditch, about two feet from the shoulder. Mr. Boever’s right leg was found approximately 40 feet northwest from his body.
Sargent Kinney and his staff were trained by John Daily. Mr. Daily is the nation’s pre-eminent traffic crash re-constructionist. He literally wrote the book on it, called Fundamentals of Traffic Crash Reconstruction. He trains law enforcement across the country, including the South Dakota Highway Patrol. We were able to question Mr. Daily during our investigation. Mr. Daily confirmed the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s report, concluding, with 95% confidence, that its conclusions were correct.
Based on the investigation, the Attorney General was charged with a lane violation under SDCL 32-26-6. He did not contest the charge and was found guilty. Moreover, he never offered an explanation for driving on the shoulder.
In his interrogation, which was not under oath, the Attorney General stated that he thought he may have “glanced” a deer and he wondered if the deer may have hopped over to the other side of the road after impact. This is why the Attorney General went back to the accident scene early the next morning, according to the Attorney General.
However, on the night of the accident, the Attorney General tells the 911 dispatcher that he does not know what he hit. In response to the 911 dispatcher’s question about what he thought he hit, he states, “I have no idea.” After the 911 call, he sent a photo of his car on the side of the road to his chief of staff, Tim Bormann. Mr. Bormann also asks about a deer. Again, the Attorney General states he hit something, but he does not confirm that it was a deer.
The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agents Rummel and Arenz believed that the Attorney General was not being truthful to them in the interrogations. During the second interrogation, the Attorney General is asked several times about his cell phone use. He does not remember using his cell phone to text or access data. He says this several times. Of course, approximately one minute before the crash, he was on his phone, reading news articles and checking his emails. It was not until his interrogators told him they knew about his phone use that he acknowledged using it.
We interviewed North Dakota Agents Rummel and Arenz as part of our investigation. Mr. Arenz testified, under oath, that the Attorney General made statements during the interrogation that indicated the Attorney General knew at the time of the accident that he did not hit a deer. This is consistent with the Attorney General’s own private statements discussed above at the time of the accident. Agent Rummel noted that the Attorney General would slam his hands down and get emphatic after he made a mistake. He also testified that the Attorney General was uncomfortable throughout the interrogations. In his experience, witnesses typically exhibit this behavior when they are not being truthful. Agent Rummel also testified that the Attorney General’s recollection were too inconsistent with the facts to be believable. Mr. Boever lied naked off the shoulder with no color to him. Cell phone records indicate that the Attorney General walked by Mr. Boever’s body when he either reporting the crash to the 911 operator or was looking for what he hit in the ditch with his cellphone flashlight. Agent Rummel testified that it would have been impossible not to see Mr. Boever’s dead body under those circumstances.
As attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg had a unique and special duty to fully cooperate in the investigation of the fatal crash. The record indicates, however, that he was less than forthcoming, and perhaps even lied, during his interview with the law enforcement officers investigating the crash. He used the privileges of his office to learn about how the investigation would be conducted. Early in the investigation, the Attorney General asked a South Dakota special agent questions about law enforcement’s ability to extract cell phone data from cell phones in the office of the Special Agent’s supervisor. The Special Agent immediately documented this strange interaction. The average suspect would not be able to learn the techniques of those investigating him. Based on the evidence and the conclusions of all law enforcement involved, I have concluded that the Attorney General was not truthful or transparent with law enforcement during the course of the investigation.
The Attorney General also mislead to the public. Less than two days after the accident, on his official state letterhead, the Attorney General issued a public statement on the accident. The Attorney General represented that his statement was a “full and factual account” of what happened, despite the fact that his statement includes several misleading or false statements meant to sway or confuse the public. For instance, the statement says he believed he hit a large animal (likely a deer); although, immediately after the crash, he would only say that he hit something. He does not disclose in this letter that he was on his cell phone approximately one minute before the accident or that he was on the shoulder of the road at the time of the accident. In fact, he says he was in the middle of the road despite ultimately pleading guilty to a lane violation.
It was inappropriate for our state’s top law enforcement officer to issue this statement to the public during a pending investigation. At the time he released it, he had not been fully interrogated by investigators.
Our committee also interviewed two of the four prosecutors who worked on the criminal trial. These interviews did not have any impact on my decision to recommend impeachment. Impeachment is not a criminal trial, and the type of charges that may come from a criminal investigation are inherently different from impeachment, which is for censure and removal of public officials.
Driving onto the shoulder of the road is “a common place occurrence.” Failing to stop at a stop sign is another common place occurrence. I agree that these types of traffic offenses, standing alone, should not serve as the basis for impeachment. But when any traffic offense results in the death of a pedestrian, it should not be considered a commonplace occurrence. In such cases, the consequences of the traffic offense simply cannot be ignored. The death of a pedestrian transforms a routine traffic offense into a serious incident regardless of whether the driver is charged with homicide. But for Attorney General’s lane violation, Mr. Boever would not have been killed.
The Attorney General is not an average citizen. He is the chief law enforcement officer of the state. He is responsible for prosecuting persons who violate state law. Whether or not the Attorney General is acting in his official capacity, he should be held to a high standard of conduct with respect to obedience of the law. Unlawfully driving on the shoulder of the road with no excuse and causing the death of a pedestrian falls well below the standard of conduct to be expected from the state’s chief law enforcement officer, even if he was not engaged in official business at the time of the crash.
The Attorney General had the opportunity to appear before the House Investigation Committee to present his version of the facts. He could have disputed the evidence in the reports and dispelled the investigators’ opinions that he was not truthful during his post-crash interviews. He failed to do so. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, there was no reason for the Committee not to accept as true all the facts in the record.
Based on the totality of these circumstances, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that the criminal act which lead to Mr. Boever’s death, albeit a class 2 misdemeanor, and his subsequent actions are grounds for the Attorney General’s impeachment under Art. XVI, § 3.
State Representative –