Leaving water in the desert for illegal immigrants is not littering, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 2-1 decision reversing the conviction of a member of a humanitarian group that provides emergency aid to illegal immigrants.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers observed Daniel Millis and three other members of the organization No More Deaths February 22, 2008, leaving gallon jugs of water Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge along routes frequently traveled by migrants. The officers cited Millis for “disposal of waste” after learning he had previously left jugs of water in the refuge.
In his appeal, Millis argued the water he was leaving was did not meet the law’s definition of waste (“garbage, refuse, sewage, sludge, earth, rocks, or other debris”) and that “humanitarian aide is never a crime.” Two of the three, Sidney Thomas and Margaret McKeown, judges agreed, noting that the water was “intended for human consumption,” and reversed his conviction.
They did not, however, provide carte blanche to leave water in the wilderness. “Millis likely could have been charged under a different regulatory section, such as abandonment of property or failure to obtain a special use permit,” they wrote.
In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Jay Bybee challenged the majority’s reasoning.
“In my view, the regulation readily encompasses the act of scattering water bottles in a wildlife refuge,” Bybee wrote. He continued:
There is nothing remotely ambiguous about a regulation prohibiting littering in a wildlife refuge. Any item—whether a handbill advertising a land auction or a new high definition TV—brought into the wildlife refuge without the Service’s permission is litter, whether it has intrinsic value or not. It doesn’t belong on the wildlife refuge. The Service couldn’t have been more clear on this. There are no refuse containers on the wildlife refuge. Visitors to the area must abide by a familiar “pack in, pack out” policy, meaning that the Service expects visitors to pack out all of their personal belongings, including trash, when they leave the area.
The U.S. attorney’s office has not yet announced if they will appeal the ruling, the San Francisco Chronicle said.
“I’m happy the court has ruled that humanitarian aid is never a crime. But I’m saddened by the continued deaths in the desert,” Millis told the AP.