Lawyer alleges rights violations in case towards snowboarders who induced avalanche

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

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

On March 25, Tyler DeWitt from Silverthorne and Evan Hannibal from Vail were driving 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 remote avalanche control unit and covered more than 400 feet of the pavement in rubble up to 20 feet deep – a slide large 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, the 5th District Attorney’s Office issued quotes from DeWitt and Hannibal for reckless endangerment, a Class 3 offense defined in the revised Colorado Bylaws as reckless behavior that poses a significant risk of serious injury 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 across the west, where upstate recreation is popular, and phrased the indictment as an attempt to pull the upstate through the district to “criminalize” law firm.

“The nearly $ 170,000 search 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 enforce ourselves, 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 everyone 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 attempting 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 sub-text for the indictment,” Brown said. “The underlying fee is used every day. We believe that by establishing the probable cause of the case, the facts 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 reported it to law enforcement without first informing snowboarders that it could be used for a criminal investigation .

“It is a real constitutional right to know that a government agency that asks you to give you something in the course of a possible criminal investigation is obliged to inform you that the things you give them are being used against you “said Flores-Williams.” This is called informed consent when a person is empowered to make that decision for themselves based on their rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendment.

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 type of evidence 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 due to begin their trial on March 25, exactly a year away from the avalanche.

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