The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has long been one of the state's most respected and least controversial agencies — a government office dedicated to preserving natural wonders and preventing disasters that all too often lead to accidental death.
But now the CAIC finds itself at the center of what's thought to be the first-ever criminal case aimed at individuals who triggered a Colorado slide: Evan Hannibal and Tyler DeWitt, whose actions caused slabs of snow to pour onto an Interstate 70 loop road near the Eisenhower Tunnel on March 25. The State of Colorado, which filed charges against the pair in Summit County Court, wants them to pay $168,000 they don't have to compensate for the cleanup — and the evidence against them includes helmet-cam video shot by Hannibal that the two supplied to the CAIC, which then passed it along to law enforcement.
Attorney and former Westword cover story subject Jason Flores-Williams, who is representing Hannibal and DeWitt pro bono, sees this last action as deeply problematic. He's filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained from his clients by the CAIC, the video included, using arguments gleaned from the fourth and fifth amendments.
In taking on the challenge, his firm is "defending the backcountry," Flores-Williams says. "It's not going to do anybody any good if they think, 'I'm going to the mountains, I'm going to have this incredible day,' but when they hike up to this place and something happens that's completely out of their control, a prosecutor is going to come after them for $168,000 — which would bankrupt these guys. They're not rich people."
Hannibal and DeWitt, like many nature lovers, "have a different philosophy — a respect and reverence for the mountains," the attorney continues. "They really prize responsible and ethical freedom and things that are much greater than any of us, like the mountains. So coming after them the way they are sends a very chilling message that could destroy a beautiful way of life in the Mountain West."
CAIC director Ethan Greene views things very differently. In a statement, he notes that the center "is tasked with helping people in Colorado understand avalanches and promoting avalanche safety. Although we have not fully reviewed or considered the motion, it is clear its assertions are neither grounded in fact nor warranted by existing law."
Greene adds: "Many of the allegations regarding the CAIC and its role in this incident are gross mischaracterizations of the events the motion attempts to describe. It is also clear the motion does not reflect an understanding of the mission of the CAIC or its longstanding support of and coordination with the backcountry community, private sector avalanche safety groups, and other government agencies, including local law enforcement. We hope the attorney's legal tactics will not affect our ability to continue to promote public safety."
Here's how Flores-Williams describes what happened on March 25.
"Tyler and Evan have both earned numerous certifications in snow sciences and avalanche preparedness. These guys are experts," he says. "They went looking for a line in the backcountry and came to the area before the Eisenhower Tunnel and employed all their expertise and took every precaution. They went above and beyond to assess if there was an avalanche risk, openly discussing everything among themselves, in a totally conscientious way. But nonetheless, despite all of their best efforts, there was a natural release of an avalanche. There were no injuries, but it ended up burying parts of I-70."
The Colorado Department of Transportation "actually has avalanche-mitigation technology there that didn't engage in any mitigation in regard to this avalanche," the attorney points out. "So even the most high-tech gear failed. Ironically, it got buried under the avalanche."
After the avalanche, he continues, Hannibal and DeWitt "went into professional mode and called 911. The Summit County Sheriff came to them, and in the spirit of mountain culture in which this could have happened to anyone, they shared data in a full discussion with him, because that's what you do in this kind of a situation. They were above and beyond ethical. And the sheriff told them — this is all on the record — 'You guys haven't broken any laws, and we really appreciate the professional way you handled this.'"
Their approach was similar when it came to the CAIC, Flores-Williams says: "The avalanche center said, 'Hey, can you share that video with us?,' and because of the backcountry culture, and the idea that we're all in this together, they immediately gave it to them. And the avalanche center, without asking, just handed it over to the DA, and now it's being used to prosecute them."
Flores-Williams insists that "I don't have an ax to grind with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. But people have a right to know who they are, exactly — a right to know if they're a backcountry ally, this altruistic group that integrates with backcountry skiers, or if they're merely an extension of law enforcement. People need to know that, because it has really serious policy applications."
The center's report about the March 25 incident is hardly a hard-core castigation of Hannibal and DeWitt, who are referred to as "Rider 1" and "Rider 2." But there is mild criticism of their belief that the avalanche mitigation apparatus mentioned by Flores-Williams made boarding there safe.
An excerpt from the CAIC states: "The riders assumed that the avalanche mitigation to protect the tunnel infrastructure decreased the avalanche hazard on the slope. Mitigation to protect infrastructure like highways is focused on reducing the potential of large natural avalanches. This differs from mitigation within ski areas, where the focus is reducing the potential for even small human-triggered avalanches. Backcountry travelers who are unaware of the differences often overestimate the hazard reduction from an infrastructure mitigation program."
Flores-Williams sees the case as having significance well beyond any potential financial repercussions for Hannibal and DeWitt. "We're operating under the philosophy that this is about defending the backcountry — that this prosecution could only come out of a legal system that actually believes man and people control everything on this planet," he says. "But any system that really factors in the power and beauty of nature would understand there are aspects of nature simply beyond our control."