Snowboarders expected to accept plea deal in criminal avalanche case
Evan Hannibal and Tyler DeWitt, the men who triggered an avalanche near the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels last year, are expected to accept a plea agreement next month, according to their defense attorney Jason Flores-Williams.
On March 25, 2020, DeWitt and Hannibal were backcountry snowboarding when they triggered an avalanche that damaged a remote avalanche control unit and buried the Loop Road above the tunnels 20 feet deep in debris. Both men were charged with a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment for the incident.
On Tuesday, May 18, Flores-Williams told the Summit Daily News that he expects his clients to accept a plea agreement in the case, in which the men would plead guilty to reckless endangerment as charged but would not be required to pay any restitution. While the agreement hasn’t yet been accepted — Hannibal and DeWitt are expected to make their decision one way or another in court June 7 — both Flores-Williams and 5th Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum said they felt it would represent a fair outcome for the case.
“Ultimately, we did get back to a reasonable place, and that’s where we should have been the entire time,” Flores-Williams said. “And when you reach a reasonable place, everybody is to be applauded.”
Reaching a presumptive plea agreement has been a long process for all involved. In February, Flores-Williams unsuccessfully argued to the court that evidence provided to law enforcement in the case by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center should be suppressed, claiming that the dissemination of that evidence — which the snowboarders willingly provided the center for its report on the incident — was a violation of his clients’ Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure.
The district attorney’s office later subpoenaed two individuals with the avalanche center to testify as expert witnesses in the case. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office attempted to quash their testimony on the grounds that it could have a negative effect on the center’s ability to gather information from those involved in avalanches, but the motion was dismissed.
A trial in the case eventually began in late March, but Judge Edward Casias quickly declared a mistrial due to a lack of a sufficient jury. A new trial is scheduled to begin June 7, but Hannibal and DeWitt are now expected to accept the plea agreement instead.
If the deal is accepted, Hannibal and DeWitt would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and would be required to complete between 20 and 60 hours of useful public service. They would not have to pay any restitution.
McCollum said the important part of the case for her office was making sure that the men were held responsible for their behavior and that backcountry users understand that their actions can have serious consequences.
“The location that these two individuals chose to ski was right over I-70,” McCollum said. “Everyone is lucky that we are not looking at a homicide or a manslaughter case. Everyone is lucky in this case that it’s a misdemeanor of reckless endangerment. … I hope that for everyone involved in this case, and for everyone interested in this case, that it’s a reminder to all of us how fragile our environment is and how quickly things can go from having a really great time to something that is potentially deadly or deadly.”
Flores-Williams said the plea offer would allow his clients to avoid the possibility of “financial ruination” they faced if found guilty in trial and to begin to move forward from the ordeal.
“We started with $168,000 in (restitution) requests,” Flores-Williams said. “Tyler and Evan had the courage to fight that off, and it came down from $168,000 to zero. Now it’s a matter of going into court and accepting a misdemeanor. At that point, I think everybody has made their point. The DA has made their point. Tyler and Evan stood up for the backcountry (community). You reach a point with the way that the system works where it’s just time for everyone to move forward. … This is an outcome that enables Tyler and Evan and the backcountry community to move forward with its integrity in tact.”
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