In her emotionally charged floor speech supporting the impeachment of killer Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, Representative Mary Fitzgerald (R-31/Spearfish) said that Ravnsborg’s actions “have misguided the people of South Dakota into thinking that there are two tiers of justice: one for the powerful politicians and one for the average citizen.” Fitzgerald said Ravnsborg has abused his position “countless times” and is unfit to serve as Attorney General.
Impeachment itself is a tier of justice separate from what any average citizen would face, so the question of whether an elected official should be removed from office for breaking the law, killing a man, and lying about it is separate from what punishment that person should receive in criminal court for specific statutory crimes. SDPB looks into the latter question and produces a monumentally detailed and readworthy report finding that Ravnsborg was not treated unusually lightly compared to other drivers who killed pedestrians:
SDPB analyzed data from the Department of Public Safety and combed through crash reports and state court records from 2016 through 2020.
Ravnsborg was among at least 31 other drivers who were not legally intoxicated when they accidentally hit and killed pedestrians during this time period.
Twenty of these drivers — or about two-thirds of them— were not charged with any offense or crime related to their driving.
The remaining 11 drivers were cited for traffic offenses or charged with low-level misdemeanors.
None of the 31 drivers served jail or prison time, and none paid a fine close to the $1,000 imposed on the attorney general. None of them, including Ravnsborg, appear to have been arrested at the scene.
SDPB only analyzed cases within state jurisdiction where drivers are subject to state laws, not tribal or federal statutes.
Tim Rensch, Ravnsborg’s attorney, said he was not surprised by SDPB’s findings.
“It sounds like exactly what I would expect,” he said. “That somebody’s not intoxicated, and those accidents happen, then there are those low misdemeanors to take care of it” [Arielle Zionts, “Ravnsborg’s Punishment, Charges Similar to Others in Comparable Accidents,” SDPB, 2022.04.19].
If Ravnsborg’s treatment in the courts is typical of what South Dakota does to drivers who kill pedestrians, that doesn’t indicate that we should let up on Ravnsborg. That indicates the state has a bigger problem with holding drivers responsible for their actions. And even if prosecutors and the Legislature are going to give sloppy drivers free passes to run over pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users not encased in two-ton hurtling death machines, elected officials have a unique obligation to the public trust that requires they be more careful than the average citizen. When elected officials fail to take that greater care, they should face greater consequences, like losing their elected positions.