Snowboarders get 20 hours of community service in backcountry avalanche case
Evan Hannibal and Tyler DeWitt, the men responsible for triggering an avalanche above the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels in March 2020, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment during an in-person hearing at the Summit County Justice Center on Monday, June 7.
Both men were sentenced to 20 hours of community service.
On March 25, 2020, Hannibal and DeWitt were snowboarding above the tunnels when they triggered an avalanche that damaged a remote avalanche control unit and buried the Loop Road running above the tunnels with snow and debris. Nobody was injured in the slide.
The snowboarders reported the avalanche and stuck around to answer questions from law enforcement. They later provided information on the incident to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which in turn shared it with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. In April 2020, Hannibal and DeWitt were charged with misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.
The case soon gained statewide attention as the larger backcountry community and state agencies considered the potential impacts of the prosecution.
In February, defense attorney Jason Flores-Williams unsuccessfully argued that the use of evidence provided to law enforcement by the avalanche center represented a violation of his clients’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, noting that the men didn’t know the information they shared could be used against them in a criminal case.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser later filed a motion to quash subpoenas issued by the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office to keep avalanche center employees from testifying in the case, noting that their testimony could dissuade individuals from reporting avalanches to the center in the future. That motion was dismissed in March.
A trial began later that month, but Judge Edward Casias quickly declared a mistrial due an insufficient juror turnout. Another trial date was set for June 7, but the snowboarders ultimately decided to accept a plea agreement in the case rather than face potentially life-altering restitution costs if they lost.
“It’s very disappointing to take a guilty plea because at no point did we feel guilty,” DeWitt said in an interview with the Summit Daily after the sentencing. “At no point did we act recklessly out there, but this was just an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up … and this isn’t going to change the way I recreate at all. But it would have been ridiculous to pass up 20 hours of community service and gamble with a financial loss for the rest of our lives. So it’s sad to bend over and get strong-armed by the DA, but that’s what we had to do.”
Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Cava said there was evidence that the men did act recklessly in triggering the avalanche. She pointed to a video circulating of the incident that shows the two snowboarders heading down the slope at the same time with some distance between them instead of one at a time. She also noted the avalanche forecast for the day, which warned of possible avalanches in high-elevation, wind-prone, easterly facing slopes. The snowboarders were on a west-facing slope, but Cava said the other parts of the forecast should have raised red flags.
“It’s sort of like they disregarded all of the other information and said, ‘Well, we’re on a west-facing aspect, so we’ll be fine,” Cava said. “It’s akin to saying, ’I’m going to drive to Denver, and it’s only forecast for 3 inches of snow.’ But when I get out there, it’s 15 inches. … You have to be ready to adapt. I think part of the issue was they had this line in their mind, and it was going to happen that day.”
Cava said she felt the disposition and sentencing in the case was fair but reiterated that without the snowboarders paying any restitution the “bill falls on someone,” possibly taxpayers.
Casias sentenced the men to 20 hours of useful community service each. They’ll also have to pay about $1,150 in court fines, though they otherwise won’t have to pay any restitution for the incident.
But the fallout of the conviction may still remain to be seen. Casias said he hoped that state agencies would look at the situation as an isolated incident, trust that backcountry users learned the lesson and choose not to more tightly regulate backcountry recreation.
Hannibal said he’s already had conversations with other backcountry users who have decided not to report avalanches to the state avalanche center in the future. Though, he said he doesn’t necessarily agree that’s the right move.
“You can report stuff anonymously and still get the information out there,” Hannibal said. “There are ways of going about things and keeping the community safe that don’t involve waiving your Fourth and Fifth Amendment (rights).”
Cava emphasized that prosecuting individuals for triggering avalanches was exceedingly rare and shouldn’t discourage individuals from reporting them. She continued to say that as long as backcountry users were responsible and aware of their surroundings — especially near open public roadways — they wouldn’t have to worry.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said the organization follows the laws it’s required to and puts its ability to serve the public above everything else. Greene noted that he was unsure how the conviction would change public perception of the organization, but he hopes that backcountry users will continue to share the information they have to improve public safety for everyone.
“I really don’t know how it’s impacted peoples’ view of the organization, because there are so many people that potentially have opinions about the avalanche center,” Greene said. “I do think that information sharing has always been a delicate topic, and I don’t see that changing in the future. I don’t know what the impacts of this particular case are on that.
“I do think that everybody benefits from information sharing, whether it’s through us or other platforms. I do hope people continue to help each other and share information about the backcountry — whether it’s in the winter or summer. The more information we get from people the better the avalanche forecast that we can put out will be.”
In the end, it seems nobody was wholly satisfied with the ruling but all accepted that it was reasonable.
“It’s a big weight off our shoulders,” Hannibal said. “Obviously, we would have liked it to pan out differently, but given the circumstances, 20 hours of community service, I don’t have a problem doing that. … This brought to light really the potential of your actions in the backcountry as well as doing what you think is right. We figured we were trying to be responsible and helpful reporting it right away and cooperation with the state entities. Unfortunately, it turned around and kind of bit us in the ass. I think that just comes back to crossing your t’s and dotting our i’s — really making sure you have things dialed in when you decide to go back (in the backcountry).”
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