A South Dakota judge has barred Gov. Kristi Noem’s office from releasing additional documents and footage in connection with the investigation into a fatal car crash involving the state’s attorney general, just days after footage was released showing the victim’s glasses had been discovered inside the official’s vehicle.
Jason Ravnsborg’s defense attorneys were handed a victory Thursday when a circuit court judge in the county where the crash occurred ordered Noem and the Department of Public Safety to halt the governor’s plan to release more documents from the crash investigation, the Argus Leader reported.
Ravnsborg, the state’s top law enforcement agent, is facing three misdemeanor charges for allegedly striking a Highmore man with his car on Sept. 12 – then claiming he initially thought it was a deer.
The judge also ordered the Department of Public Safety to remove two videos from its website it had released Tuesday that showed investigators interviewing Ravnsborg.
The Republican governor was among the loudest voices calling for Ravnsborg to resign. Noem had tried to ratchet up pressure on the attorney general to resign earlier Thursday, promising to release the investigation documents and enlisting a senior Cabinet member to join the chorus calling for his removal from office.
Speaking at a news conference, Noem said she decided to publicly call for Ravnsborg to resign after taking a day to review the investigation, including videos of his interviews with law enforcement. She cast the decision to release the documents and video as providing transparency to the investigation.
Ravnsborg, also a Republican, has indicated he will not step down and insists he can continue performing the duties of his office despite facing the traffic charges and impeachment in the Legislature.
But Craig Price, Noem’s secretary of public safety, pushed for Ravnsborg’s impeachment. Joining Noem at the news conference, Price said “maintaining public trust is critical” for law enforcement officers, referencing his 20-year career as a police officer that culminated with overseeing the state’s Highway Patrol.
Price had said the Department of Public Safety was within the bounds of state law in releasing the documents.
Noem said she spent 10 hours going through details of the crash investigation on Monday, a day before she called for him to step down.
“I had not seen anything prior to that, but that is one of the reasons that we moved forward on Tuesday and why I put forward my personal opinion that he should resign,” she said.
The governor said she had not communicated directly with Ravnsborg since the accident.
Noem also made the extraordinary move of releasing videos of Ravnsborg’s interviews with detectives investigating the crash that occurred as he was driving home from a Republican fundraiser. The videos have since been removed from the Department of Public Safety’s website.
In the interviews, Ravnsborg appears unsure of how his Ford Taurus veered onto the highway shoulder, where it struck 55-year-old Joseph Boever. Though he initially told investigators he didn’t use his cellphone while driving that night, he admitted he had been checking email and news websites after investigators confronted him with his phone records.
Prosecutors have charged him with a misdemeanor for using his phone while driving, though his phone records show the device was locked about a minute before the crash.
Meanwhile, lawmakers readied to move forward with impeachment proceedings next week. House Speaker Spencer Gosch has proposed forming a special committee to investigate Ravnsborg’s conduct in the fatal crash.
Price, who led the crash investigation, previously said Ravnsborg was distracted before he drove onto the shoulder of a darkened stretch of highway but has not provided additional details. Boever, 55, was walking on the side of the road and displaying some type of light when Ravnsborg’s 2011 Ford Taurus hit him, according to Price.
Ravnsborg released a statement shortly after the crash saying his vehicle “struck something that I believed to be a large animal (likely a deer).”
Ravnsborg said he called 911 and used the flashlight on his cellphone to survey a ditch near the area “but couldn’t see anything.”
“I looked around the vehicle in the dark and saw nothing to indicate what I had hit,” he said in the statement. “All I could see were pieces of my vehicle laying on and around the roadway.”
When Sheriff Mike Volek arrived, he, too, “surveyed the damage” to the crime scene and to Ravnsborg’s vehicle, the state AG said.
“At no time did either of us suspect that I had been involved in an accident with a person,” his statement continued. Ravnsborg, whose car was too damaged to drive, borrowed Volek’s personal vehicle to get home, he said.
Ravnsborg described how he and his chief of staff were driving to return Volek’s vehicle the morning after the scene when they stopped at the accident scene.
Ravnsborg could face up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine on each charge: careless driving, driving out of his lane and operating a motor vehicle while on his phone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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