TUCSON, Ariz. – A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Thursday tossed out the conviction of an Arizona man who left water jugs for migrants as they passed through the intensely hot desert.
During a bench trial two years ago, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco in Tucson found Daniel Millis guilty of littering.
Millis and the faith-based aid group No More Deaths had regularly helped migrants by offering them food, water and medical aid.
Prosecutors said Millis left behind garbage and failed to follow orders by federal agents to remove it from the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona.
In reversing the conviction, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said Thursday the term "garbage" is "sufficiently ambiguous" and should be resolved in favor of the defendant.
In an interview with The Associated Press Thursday, Millis, 31, said he has mixed emotions about the decision to throw out his conviction for littering.
"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," he said.
Millis said he will feel better when there's a border policy in place that respects human rights.
During his bench trial Millis argued he was punished for offering help. His lawyer, Bill Walker, had argued that a full water jug is not litter.
Millis says he left 22 one-gallon water jugs in the desert. Walker said during the trial that Millis was cooperative with refuge officials, and also that he'd been rattled on the day he was cited because two days earlier he had found the body of a 14-year-old El Salvador native who had died of exposure.
Wildlife officials have said there are enormous problems with trash, much of it caused by illegal immigrants who regularly travel through, so it's imperative they enforce littering laws.
There are also concerns that tons of trash on the refuge impacts wildlife and can lead to animals choking on plastic from water jugs left behind, refuge officials said.
A call Thursday into the superintendent of the refuge seeking reaction to Thursday's ruling was not immediately returned.