Backcountry snowboarders Evan Hannibal and Tyler Dewitt will not have to pay $168,000 for damages that resulted when an avalanche they reported buried a service road above Interstate 70 in March 2020.
The two also were facing misdemeanor charges related to the March 25 slide that damaged avalanche mitigation devices above the west portal of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels.
Hannibal, 26, and Dewitt, 38, were planning to go to trial in Summit County early next month. The pair argued that the video from their helmet-cams capturing the slide, which they gave to Colorado Avalanche Information Center – CAIC – investigators hoping it would help educate other backcountry travelers, should not have become evidence in a criminal trial.
“I really wanted to fight this for the backcountry community so this didn’t become some sort of precedent,” said Hannibal, a ski patroller who is studying to become a nurse. “A part of me wishes this could have gone to trial to make the point that we can’t face criminal charges for some backcountry accidents. Tyler and I could have easily hiked back up the ridgeline and skied down the safe gully and no one would have known we were up there. But we did the right thing and reported it and worked with the CAIC, and we ended up getting in trouble for it. So where’s the incentive for doing the right thing other than our character as humans?”
Hannibal and Dewitt will do about 20 hours of community service and they will be on unsupervised probation for an unspecified amount of time as part of the deal with the 5th District Attorney’s Office.
The pair were in court in Breckenridge and ready for trial on March 25 this year – exactly one year after the avalanche – when the judge ordered a mistrial because too few jurors showed up to serve. A new trial was scheduled to start June 7.
“We were ready for a noble fight,” Hannibal said. “But at a certain point you just have to come to terms with your own needs and look at the situation objectively. Do we really need to draw this out any longer? This was a reasonable offer. I realize there were damages and I’m willing to do my part to help with that, to an extent.”
Criminal charges involving a backcountry avalanche are very rare. The case against Hannibal and Dewitt had sweeping implications for backcountry travelers. CAIC investigators who collected the video from Hannibal and Dewitt were not pleased to see their report on the avalanche used to anchor criminal charges. Accident reports are published to educate backcountry travelers about avalanche safety, by providing glimpses of narrow misses and mistakes.
The Colorado Attorney General earlier this year argued that Summit County’s subpoena of CAIC investigators to testify as expert witnesses against Hannibal and Dewitt “could have an unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact on the CAIC’s ability to gather important information.” Attorney General Phil Weiser, acting as an attorney for the state’s avalanche center, filed motions to quash the subpoenas, but Summit County Judge Ed Casias dismissed them. Casias also rejected a motion filed by the two snowboarders arguing their constitutional protection from unlawful search and seizure was violated when the video they provided to the CAIC was used as evidence in criminal charges.
“These two guys made an incredible stand,” said Denver attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who represented Hannibal and Dewitt pro bono. “The state probably thought they would be patsies. But they faced down $170,000 in restitution. They faced down being labeled as irresponsible. They are highly responsible and highly self-reliant backcountry users.”
Flores-Williams also is glad CAIC executive director Ethan Greene did not have to testify. Like Weiser, he feared the optics of avalanche-safety scientists testifying against backcountry travelers could damage the CAIC’s mission to promote avalanche awareness and safety.
“I give Ethan and the AG credit for stepping in and saying ‘Hey, we are not law enforcement,’” Flores-Williams said. “The CAIC needs to be able to work closely with the backcountry community and the community needs to trust them.”
Greene said CAIC’s goal through the criminal process was to maintain the center’s focus on avalanche education and interaction with the state’s backcountry travelers.
“We will continue to help people understand and avoid an avalanche,” Greene said. “We hope that everyone in Colorado has the opportunity to enjoy backcountry recreation on public lands and considers how their actions could affect other people before they go into avalanche terrain.”