Evan Hannibal and Tyler DeWitt, two Summit Country backcountry snowboarders who triggered an avalanche last year that buried a CDOT maintenance road and damaged avalanche mitigation equipment, have worked out a deal with their attorney and the 5th Judicial District Attorney to avoid trial and a large fine. Hannibal and DeWitt were charged by the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office with Reckless Endangerment and were facing up to $168,000 in penalties. Their trial, originally scheduled for March 20, 2021, was postponed due to a lack of an adequate jury pool. The two are scheduled to return to court on June 7th, where they are expected to plead “Guilty” and accept a punishment of 20 hours of community service. In a Summit Daily article today, representatives of both parties “said they felt it would represent a fair outcome for the case.”
Shared above is a video of the avalanche that buried a service road and damaged CDOT avalanche mitigation equipment at the I70 Eisenhower Tunnel, CO. This video was used as evidence in a criminal court case against Tyler DeWitt and Evan Hannibal, who triggered the slide while backcountry skiing a slope above the highway.
This case remains the first of its kind. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders have never been successfully criminally prosecuted for their involvement in an avalanche incident in Colorado or the rest of the United States. However, in an October 18, 2020 article in the Colorado Sun, Bruce Brown, the district attorney for Colorado’s 5th Judicial District, pointed out that Hannibal and Dewitt were aware of the risk of an avalanche and discussed how to avoid that risk. Brown said:
“We charged them with reckless endangerment because it was foreseeable they were putting other people at risk of serious bodily injury in that they recognized the potential for a slide and they could obviously see, right below their skis, I-70, where 100,000 cars go by each week,” Brown said. “They knew if there was a slide, it could end up on the roadway, endangering the traveling public.”
— Bruce Brown, District Attorney, Colorado 5th Judicial District
Much of the DA’s case involved the above video that Hannibal shared with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Hannibal and DeWitt shared their video and observations to the CAIC in a good faith effort to inform the public agency of an avalanche incident that they were involved in. They did not anticipate that this might lead to criminal charges against them. Nevertheless, they insisted in court that prosecutors violated their protection from unlawful search and seizure when they issued criminal charges based on the helmet-cam video. As reported in an October 18, 2021 article in the Colorado Sun, their attorney Jason Flores-Williams argued that the use of the video they provided constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.
Summit County Court Judge Ed Casias found no violation of the men’s constitutional protections from unlawful search and seizure because there was no search and nothing was seized. However, he allowed that the men’s video and information they provided to the CAIC might be used against them as the court case proceeds. Casias also denied the argument that the video’s collection violated the men’s Miranda rights, which only applies to people in custody when they are advised that what they say can be used against them in court.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser argued that Summit County’s plan to call avalanche center director Ethan Greene as an expert witness “could have an unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact on the CAIC’s ability to gather important information.” Green was quoted today on thedenverchannel that he was glad that he would not have to testify at the June trial. Greene emphasized that the CAIC relies upon documents and shares a wide variety of public observations and information to promote avalanche safety.
“I think the whole time we tried to stay focused on our mission, which is helping people understand avalanches and helping people stay out of them and promoting avalanche safety. We really tried to stick up for our ability to do that and we tried to stay really focused on that and not on any of the other parts that some people were trying to drag us into.”
– Ethan Greene, Director, CAIC
Further clarifying CAIC’s role as a state agency, Green went on to say that the CAIC is subject to the Colorado Open Records Acts, so all information they have is available for use by others.
“So, if we have a piece of information and you or anyone else asks us for it, with some exceptions, we have to provide it. This is not a policy decision on the avalanche center’s part—this is something society has created. And we’re just abiding by the laws of the state.”
“It’s really a matter of the backcountry community supporting each other. We try to help that—facilitate that, essentially. So, we’re putting out public safety information but also trying to circulate information between users. And taking all of the different sources of information and sifting it into an encapsulated product for people to use when they are headed out to recreate.”
– Ethan Green, Director, CAIC
Regarding the agreement, 5th Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum said that the important part of the case for the DA’s office was that Hannibal and DeWitt were held responsible for the incident and that backcountry users be aware that their actions can have serious consequences. In the Summit Daily article, McCollum stated:
“The location that these two individuals chose to ski was right over I-70. 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.”
Heidi Mc Collum – 5th Judicial District Attorney
There has been continued discussion of this story on social media. People are wondering if they should report avalanche incidents to avalanche information centers. The idea that information we share could be used against us makes many folks hesitant to share information. There have been a few incidents lately where people involved were reluctant to share information. A Tahoe incident from this past season sticks in my mind. Many people feel that this entire prosecution was a mistake, while others feel that Hannibal and DeWitt are getting off easy with only twenty hours of community service.