Written by Don Byrd
Scott Warren, on trial in federal court, argued that his religious beliefs compelled him to provide aid to those in need, including undocumented immigrants. And although a judge refused to dismiss the charges against him on the basis of his religious freedom defense under RFRA, a 12-person jury was not willing to convict him. The judge this week declared a mistrial after jurors informed the court they were hopelessly deadlocked. The Arizona Daily Star reports that eight jurors were voting to acquit, while four were voting to convict.
Warren is a volunteer for “No More Deaths,” a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, which is “dedicated to stepping up efforts to stop the deaths of migrants in the desert and to achieving the enactment of a set of Faith-Based Principles for Immigration Reform.” He was charged with harboring and conspiring to transport two undocumented immigrants in January 2018. In a statement following the mistrial, Warren noted that “since his arrest on Jan. 17, 2018, the remains of 88 migrants were recovered from the Ajo corridor, a remote and notoriously rugged desert wilderness in southwestern Arizona.”
Religious freedom defenses to criminal charges are rarely successful. Yet it’s clear that RFRA is a permissible defense. As I posted earlier, that doesn’t mean the religious objector wins, but it does set a neutral framework for adjudicating disputes over the enforcement of laws that substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion. Here, the judge allowed the trial to go forward, ruling that too many facts remained unknown to decide the RFRA claim as a matter of law.
Prosecutors must decide by July 2 whether to re-try the case.