Law Governor Noem cites in state’s attorney probe came after 1916 vote made South Dakota ‘dry’

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Gov. Noem

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The state law Governor Kristi Noem gave as her reason Wednesday for directing state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to investigate the weeks-long absence of Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan is rooted in South Dakota’s prohibition era a century ago.

Legislators passed the original version in February 1917, after South Dakota voters reinstated prohibition just months before, in the November statewide election.

The law gave the governor authority to remove from office, after proper notice and a hearing, any states attorney, sheriff or police officer who failed to enforce prohibition, or was found guilty of intoxication or drunkenness, or was found “grossly incompetent” to enforce the law. 

That power for the governor was in the second section of a sweeping 102-section piece of legislation that made prohibition the law for a second time throughout South Dakota.

The same act established a state commissioner of prohibition and assigned deputies to that office.

But the law also exempted physicians and druggists who, with a special permit, could prescribe and administer alcohol for “medicinal purposes.”

Later that year, on December 18, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution calling for prohibition and ratified it January 16, 1919. Nearly 15 years later on December 5, 1933, Congress repealed prohibition by ratifying the 21st Amendment.

In South Dakota, the 1917 return of prohibition that July 1 even created a bounty system, down in the legislation’s 97th section, for catching drinkers and enablers. It let town boards, city commissioners or council members, and county commissioners offer rewards, up to $200, for information that produced a conviction of any person illegally drinking, supplying or transporting alcohol. 

Those same local-government officials also could use public funds to pay people to be employed as semi-private secret investigators, gathering evidence against customers and business persons suspected of breaking the alcohol ban. There was a specific exemption that said their hiring didn’t have to be reported through a public notice in the local newspaper. 

The legislation, H.B. 307, was titled simply “Prohibiting the Manufacture and Sale of Intoxication Liquors.” But it was one of the longest laws passed in 1917, covering pages 488 through 541 in that year’s session laws.

Many state officials took prohibition seriously, at least on paper. That was evident in a 1923 revision of a different South Dakota law that let judges suspend the sentences of most people upon their first convictions, with a clear exception that said suspensions “shall in no case apply to the jail sentence of persons convicted under the intoxicating liquor laws or prohibitory laws of the state.” 

But drunkenness has stood for more than a century as a legal reason for removing someone from elected office, whether or not prohibition was in effect. For example, since at least 1901 the governor of South Dakota could cite drunkenness as a reason for seeking dismissal of state constitutional officers.

H.B. 34 that year authorized the governor to push for the departure of a constitutional state officer, again after notice and hearing, “for crimes, misconduct, or malfeasance in office or for drunkenness or gross incompetency.”

State constitutional offices are lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor, and commissioner of school and public lands. 

South Dakota has been back and forth on whether liquor should be prohibited and who should be in charge of it. Starting with statehood in 1889, alcohol for intoxication purposes was banned, until voters repealed prohibition in 1896.

Voters gave state government control over liquor in 1898, then repealed that control in 1900. Voters approved prohibition a second time in 1916, with 65,334 ballots marked yes and 53,380 no.

Four years later they turned down an attempt to amend the intoxicating liquors ban. But by the 1934 election there was enough backlash against prohibition that voters again repealed it, with 142,853 favoring repeal, versus 108,648 wanting to keep South Dakota dry.

Or at least as dry as a state could be, The Legislature in a 1933 special session approved lower-alcohol beer of no more than 3.2 percent as a way to get around the federal ban.

Voters twice faced ballot measures – in 1948 and 1950 — to prohibit the sale of alcohol where food is sold, and they rejected the limitation both times. A statewide alcohol measure hasn’t been on the ballot since then.

KELOLAND Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Merer sent the governor’s office two questions — Does Governor Noem abstain from use of alcohol? — Was alcohol served at Governor Noem’s inaugural events at the official residence? — because he didn’t know the answer to either but they seemed relevant given the “drunkenness” reference in the state law she cited.

Responded Joshua Shields, the governor’s communications director: “This matter is under investigation therefore the governor won’t be making any further comment on the matter until it is completed.”


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