Legal professional alleges rights violations in case towards snowboarders who brought on avalanche

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Two snowboarders battle reckless hazard allegations after they triggered an avalanche over Loop Road near the Eisenhower / Johnson Memorial Tunnels earlier this year.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Two snowboarders, charged with reckless endangerment after triggering an avalanche near the Eisenhower Tunnel earlier this year, continue to battle the charges.

On March 25, Tyler DeWitt of Silverthorne and Evan Hannibal of Vail were driving over the Eisenhower / Johnson Memorial Tunnels in the backcountry when a sheet of snow came off and buried the Loop Road that runs above the tunnel.

No one was caught or injured in the avalanche, but the slide damaged a distant avalanche control unit and covered more than 400 feet of the lane in rubble up to 20 feet deep – a slide big enough to destroy a car or wooden house at one Report of the incident from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The avalanche danger was moderate at the time of the incident.

In April, DeWitt and Hannibal’s 5th Law Firm issued quotes of reckless harm, a Class 3 offense defined in the Colorado Bylaws as reckless behavior that poses a significant risk of serious bodily harm to another person. The prosecution is also seeking a refund of approximately $ 168,000 for the resulting damage and cleanup.

Both DeWitt and Hannibal have pleaded not guilty in the case and are facing a two-day trial in late March.

Jason Flores-Williams, a Denver-based attorney who represents both men, said the case could have far-reaching implications for all of the west, where backcountry recreation is popular, framing the charge as an attempt to break the backcountry through the district to “criminalize” law firm.

“The search for nearly $ 170,000 is an attempt to send a really terrifying message that we will now criminalize backcountry behavior,” said Flores-Williams. “In these cases, our goal is not to have our way, but also to prevent this message from being sent.

“In our eyes there are certain zones into which we cannot allow the state to enter and which we can restrict the few freedoms and freedoms that we still have. … They believe that everything in the majestic Rocky Mountains can be controlled when anyone who has spent time snowboarding, camping or hiking knows that there are elemental forces of nature that are beyond human control – avalanches are one of them. “

District Attorney Bruce Brown said the case had nothing to do with trying to monitor the backcountry or setting a precedent, and that his office’s decision to prosecute the snowboarders was based solely on their behavior on the day of the avalanche.

“The indictment is tight and there is no subtext to the indictment,” Brown said. “The underlying fee is used every day. We believe that by establishing the probable cause, the facts in the case fit the crime charged, and it is up to a Summit County jury to determine whether or not it does. But there is no broader goal. “

Earlier this week, Flores-Williams filed a motion with the court to try to suppress evidence in the case, including any testimony and videos obtained from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In the motion, Flores-Williams alleges that the information center collected evidence of the case – including GoPro footage of the avalanche – and later shared it with law enforcement without first informing snowboarders that it could be used for a criminal investigation .

“It is a real constitutional right to know that if a government agency is asked to give you something in a possible criminal investigation, it is obliged to inform you that the things you are giving them are against you “said Flores-Williams.” This is called informed consent when a person is empowered to make that decision for themselves by their rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. “

Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said he was unable to comment on the case in ongoing legal proceedings. The center is a partnership between the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the Friends of the nonprofit CAIC.

Brown said his office would file a response to the defense’s request to suppress the evidence, but he ultimately felt that the court would allow it to do so.

“It’s not uncommon for people to seek a court order that precludes the admission of certain pieces of evidence,” Brown said. “It doesn’t seem to me that this is the kind of evidence that has been obtained through any form of coercion. So I would expect the evidence gathered in the course of the investigation to be presented in court. But that has to be determined by a judge. “

A hearing of the motions in this case is scheduled for February 16. DeWitt and Hannibal are scheduled to begin their trial on March 25, exactly a year away from the avalanche.