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Backcountry snowboarders won't have to pay $168K in restitution for avalanche after plea agreement

Two men face community service after deal
Posted at 3:50 PM, May 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-18 22:46:34-04

DENVER – Summit County prosecutors have agreed to drop the $168,000 in restitution they sought from two backcountry snowboarders who caused an avalanche above the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels last year after the snowboarders reached a plea agreement in the case.

The attorney for Tyler DeWitt and Evan Hannibal, as well as 5th Judicial District Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Cava, confirmed that the two men had agreed to plead guilty to reckless endangerment, a class 3 misdemeanor, and that prosecutors would not seek the restitution damages.

Jason Flores-Williams, who represents DeWitt and Hannibal in their cases, said sentencing was scheduled for June 7 and that his clients would likely face 20-60 hours of community service.

The two experienced backcountry snowboarders caused an avalanche on March 25, 2020, that buried the service road above the tunnels through which Interstate 70 flows.

They reported the avalanche and provided video of it to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), something backcountry users can do when they see or cause an avalanche, which led prosecutors to file charges in the case and seek restitution because avalanche mitigation equipment was damaged by the avalanche.

Colorado’s attorney general fought on behalf of the CAIC a subpoena of CAIC Director Ethan Greene to testify in the case. The agency wished to stay out of the case, said Greene. The AG’s Office argued that bringing the agency into the case could have a chilling effect on the agency’s ability to gather information about avalanches, as The Colorado Sun reported, but a judge dismissed that motion.

Greene said Tuesday he was glad that he would not have to testify at the trial, which had been scheduled for June.

“I think during 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,” Greene said. “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.”

Flores-Williams had asked the judge to dismiss the case, which also ended in a mistrial in late March when not enough jurors showed up to seat a full jury, ahead of the plea agreement.

Flores-Williams said in an interview Tuesday he was pleased that DeWitt and Hannibal could “move on with their lives not having to live with these stresses.”

“My main thing for them is to move on from this in a way that it will have zero impact on their lives, and that’s what happened. So, it’s a good outcome,” he said.

Cava said the DA’s Office might have a news release on the plea agreement Tuesday afternoon.

While Flores-Williams said he is happy about the outcome for his clients, he added that the case never needed to get this far. He said by seeking the $168,000 in restitution, prosecutors turned the case “into a case of national implications.”

“It was an overreach by power. They were trying to destroy these guys,” he said. “…These are not like Texans who came up here … and said, ‘Hey, I want to ski the backcountry.’ These guys are serious, self-reliant, educated backcountry users.”

“When they pushed back,” Flores-Williams added, “the DA dropped the restitution piece and brought it to zero.”

He said that he still believes the request to have Greene testify and to use the video the two snowboarders submitted to the CAIC as evidence in the case, as well as the seeking of restitution, would have a chilling effect on avalanche safety in the state.

“It created a negative outcome for a trusted state agency,” Flores-Williams said. “…They did what they were supposed to do and gave them the video, and CAIC was kind of misused by law enforcement.”

Flores-Williams said that he hopes protocols are put in place “so that people know that they don’t have to think twice before contacting and reporting to CAIC.”

Greene, the CAIC director, said that would have to be a question for the state government as a whole, because the CAIC is still subject to the Colorado Open Records Act.

“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.”

He said that the attorney general’s office’s representation was about the CAIC’s desire not to be involved in the case and not about a policymaking decision. Greene added that all of the data the agency gathers on avalanches from various sources are beneficial.

“It’s really a matter of the backcountry community supporting each other. We try to help that, facilitate that, essentially,” Greene said. “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.”