Not enough jurors showed up for a trial last week in a case that could have implications for avalanche safety in the Mountain West.
The case involves two Colorado snowboarders who, in March 2020, triggered an avalanche and then reported it. Prosecutors are charging the boarders with misdemeanor reckless endangerment and asking for $168,000 in damages after the slide destroyed an avalanche mitigation device and covered a service road.
"I think most people in this country might not know, but jury service is the only civic duty we have (required) in this country. Everything else is a choice for us,” said Summit County District Attorney Heidi McCollum, who will be arguing against the two men involved in the case.
McCollum said she’s frustrated, and believes it’s a serious delay of justice for all parties involved. But, according to her, this isn’t the first time not enough jurors showed up.
“It has happened before, and it seems to have happened before in Summit County. It’s disappointing to say the least,” she said. “We would like to present the evidence that we have, that we’ve been prepared to present.”
That evidence was expected to include helmet-camera footage that the men voluntarily gave to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center after the incident.
Several backcountry enthusiasts are alarmed by the charges, arguing that fear of prosecution could have a chilling effect on recreators’ willingness to report avalanches.
That includes long-time avalanche professional Dale Atkins.
“Even really smart people can make foolish mistakes, but we shouldn’t criminalize foolish mistakes,” he said.
He said there’s a lot we still don’t know about avalanches, and even where there are low avalanche risks, conditions can change day to day, slope to slope. And he said it could cost lives if people hesitate to call in an avalanche, provide incomplete information – or don't report it at all.
McCollum argues the case won’t deter people from reporting avalanches, though, because she says the charges are so specific to this particular incident.
“I don’t think that the outcome of one misdemeanor case in Summit County, Colorado, is going to change people’s behavior,” she said.
Even so, Atkins says that since they were able to set off an avalanche in that location, there was already a risk that an avalanche would have happened anyway, causing the same damage.
“When you’re putting infrastructure in and around avalanche paths, there’s always a chance that that equipment, that infrastructure can be damaged,” he said. “The golden rule is you don’t put stuff into an avalanche track, or even into the runout zone that you expect to survive.”
“There will always be a bigger avalanche,” he added.
The two men who set off the slide do say on camera that they were concerned about the conditions, though, and went down anyway. Atkins said that’s part of a larger problem within avalanche training.
“We in the avalanche profession can do a better job of telling people ‘that’s when you need to turn around and come back on another day when you’re more sure,’” he said.
The snowboarders' attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, agrees that this could have been a teachable moment. However, he said the state should have opted for education instead of prosecution.
“Use it as a moment of awareness instead of grabbing onto fear,” he said. “It feels like the criminalization of backcountry riding.”
He said this seems like another area where the law is stepping in to limit people’s freedom, “so really, from my perspective, it’s really fighting against this perspective to over-legalize everything.”
However, Flores-Williams agrees with the prosecution in one way: the charges are already a year old and the trial should have moved forward.
“We had an institution failure,” he said. However, “we’re going to use it to prepare even more.”
The trial has been rescheduled for the first week of June.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.