Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.On Tuesday, the South Dakota house of representatives impeached the state’s Republican attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, for killing a 55-year-old pedestrian with his Ford Taurus in September 2020. Ravnsborg paid a small fine and pleaded no contest last year to using his cellphone while driving and driving outside his lane before the crash, but he avoided jail time and more serious charges.
Ravnsborg’s impeachment has intensified divisions within the South Dakota GOP. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who harbors national political ambitions, has repeatedly called for him to resign. Ravnsborg has accused Noem of breaking the law by violating a cease-and-desist order to not discuss the impeachment, and he previously floated investigating Noem for using her state office to help her daughter. The impeachment is a notable development for the no doubt dozens of people invested in Ravnsborg’s political future, but it only underscores the grim reality of his case: As a politician, he may pay a steep price. As a driver, he’s faced few consequences for years of bad behavior.
Ravnsborg told the dispatcher the night of the accident that whatever he hit “was in the middle of the road,” and that he had no idea what it had been. He later said he thought he’d struck a deer but found no sign of one and only came across the body of Joe Boever the next morning, when he went to return the car the responding sheriff had lent him.
But investigators learned that Ravnsborg’s vehicle had been solidly on the right shoulder of the two-lane state highway, traveling more than 60 miles per hour, at the time of the crash. Boever, the victim, had been walking along the side of the road with a flashlight. Ravnsborg shouldn’t have had much confusion about where he was on the road—he’d crossed the rumble strip separating the lane from the shoulder. Nor should it have been hard to miss Boever’s body—his flashlight had remained on all night.
When he was interviewed by investigators from the North Dakota Bureau of Investigation (who were brought in to avoid a conflict of interest), more cracks started to appear in his story. For one thing, humans and deer aren’t hard to tell apart. There’s literally an expression to describe what deer look like in the path of a vehicle.
“His face was in your windshield, Jason, think about that,” one investigator told him. Boever’s glasses had even been found in Ravnsborg’s passenger seat.
And Ravnsborg’s account seemed to bolster investigators’ doubts. In his interview with police, the AG said that while he was walking along the road after the crash, he had turned around “and saw him,” and then quickly backtracked. At another point, Ravnsborg said he didn’t see what he’d hit “until the impact,” which is different than not seeing anything at all. Per the Associated Press, “The investigators determined that Ravnsborg would have walked right past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever had been carrying as Ravnsborg looked around the scene the night of the crash.”
Equally perplexing was the conduct of the local sheriff, who responded to the 911 call and then let the attorney general borrow his car and return it the next day. (In his first public statement after the crash, Ravnsborg took pains to note that he had topped off the tank before he returned it to the sheriff.) The sheriff accepted the deer story and told investigators that he did notice the glow from Boever’s flashlight but did not look to see what it was.
Prosecutors eventually determined that Ravnsborg’s phone was locked at the time of the crash. But they also determined that he had been using it just a moments before, and he wasn’t just consulting Waze; he was reading news articles—including one about Hunter Biden from the right-wing website JustTheNews.com.
In a last-ditch letter to lawmakers on Monday Ravnsborg defended himself with the same care and attention to detail he previously extended to the certification of the Electoral College vote. He wrote that Article V of the Constitution guaranteed him the right to due process, which it does not. Article V lays out the process by which the Constitution can be amended by states; the Fifth Amendment assured him due process, something he already received when he pleaded no contest to the two misdemeanor counts last year. It’s a weird mistake for the state’s top lawyer to make in a memo in which he’s pleading to continue serving as the state’s top lawyer, and it’s not the only one. The document is riddled with typos, and at one point, he includes a line of argument he started and then stopped:
“The prosecutors admitted there was no cell phone use at the time of the accident,” he wrote. “Therefore, the charge does not seem to apply to impeachment because who among you has never used your cell phone while driving? Cell phone usage was ruled is not right but unrelated to the accident and not the basis for impeachment.”
The strikethrough was his. I don’t even know how you do that.
In case none of these points resonated, Ravnsborg deployed an argument previously used by Donald Trump’s attorneys in Trump’s first impeachment trial. “Your decision could overturn an election,” Ravnsborg wrote.
Ravnsborg, of course, is not the only politician to have killed someone with his car, nor is he the first to evade accountability. Bill Janklow, a predecessor as South Dakota attorney general, killed a motorcyclist after running a stop sign in 2003 while he was serving in Congress, leading to his resignation and a 100-day jail sentence. Ted Kennedy killed a woman and then fled the scene as she drowned while serving in the Senate—and then continued serving in the Senate without consequences for another three decades.
The years-long Ravnsborg saga has also been a reminder of the way that certain kinds of powerful people coddle other kinds of powerful people. Many Americans live in fear of a traffic stop. Real power in American life is when the sheriff lends you his car after you’ve mysteriously totaled your own. It resides in the exculpatory styling of the passive voice. The “accident…tragically involved a pedestrian,” Ravnsborg wrote days after the crash. The pedestrian’s involvement was that he died. Before Ravnsborg took a deal, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that his lawyer was preparing to argue that the crash was actually Boever’s fault.
But Ravnsborg’s latest letter, as damning as it is, contains a kernel of truth: He commits the faux pas of asking his colleagues to treat a traffic death caused by reckless inattention with the kind of cavalierness with which, well, policymakers generally do treat such traffic deaths. Ravnsborg is a bad driver and continues to be one; he got another speeding ticket for going 57 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone last August 22, just three days before the judge ruled on the case stemming from the fatal crash. (This time he told the state trooper he wasn’t carrying his license.) But he is the kind of bad driver that policymakers and regulators and cops have decided on a structural level to accommodate, no matter what the PSAs they fund or the laws they’ve passed might say.
As the journalist Jessie Singer lays out in her new book, There Are No Accidents, when it comes to making American roads safer, the US is profoundly unserious in just about every way, seemingly content to maintain conditions in which 40,000 or so annual death toll is considered routine. Until very recently, the US Department of Transportation didn’t require automobile design to take into account pedestrian safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn’t care for a full year that new Teslas let drivers literally play computer games while the vehicle is moving. Traffic enforcement, when it exists at all, exists to generate revenue and, thus, has little interest in preventing people from driving dangerously. On a major thoroughfare near my apartment, people get run over at the same poorly designed intersection over and over again and the press conferences from elected officials have never led to anyone actually redesigning it. It is basically open season on cyclists.
The laws and regulations and systems, in other words, are set up to keep such bad drivers behind the wheel and position them to do maximum damage when they err. Which is why, when all of this is over, Jason Ravnsborg may no longer have a job—but he will still have his license.