The Case of Scott Warren: Criminalizing Compassion

Image: No More Deaths

Image: No More Deaths

Under the lens of one of the most polarizing issues of our time, not one case regarding immigration goes unnoticed and not one verdict unpoliticized. The case of Scott Warren, a geography teacher in Arizona, is no exception. 

What comes to mind when someone mentions illegal activity? Burglary? Assault? Homicide? Violence? How about providing shelter, food, and water to people in the fatal Sonoran desert? This is exactly what Scott Warren faces up to 20 years for as he was arrested in January 2018 when border patrol agents observed him providing aid to two migrants in the unrelenting desert. The case arose shortly after Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s first attorney general, asked federal prosecutors to prioritize cases involving the harboring of migrants, leading to a steep uptick in arrests for providing aid in what group “No Más Muertes” refers to as “criminalizing kindness.”

Cases like Warren’s are no phenomenon. In Italy, Pia Kemp, a German boat captain, stands trial for coming to the aid of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. In France, a high court acquitted an olive farmer on multiple counts of assisting migrants to enter the country. Each of these cases paints two conflicting portraits of the accused and never fails to catch the public’s eye. As for Scott Warren, supporters hail him as a “humanitarian” and simply a “life-giving good Samaritan.” Prosecutors hold an opposing view, describing Warren as a “felon.” For such a polarizing topic, its difficult to find somebody who doesn’t have an opinion on immigration issues across the globe. In fact, the public is so invested in these cases that over 125,000 people signed a petition to dismiss the case against Scott Warren and another 80,000 petitioned in support of Kemp. 

With immense public interest, politicians aim to furtively politicize each case and manipulate each and every verdict, no matter how small the trial. The Trump Administration, in particular, is weaponizing Warren’s case as a threat towards groups like “No Más Muertes” and activists for migrant rights. Prior to the Trump Administration’s order to prioritize such cases, individuals aiding migrants were charged with petty misdemeanors. Now, with anti-immigrant sentiments amplified under the Trump Administration, Jason De León, a professor of Anthropology who runs the Undocumented Migration Project, claims that it is “open season on these humanitarian groups.” 

The stress placed upon such high profile cases is not limited to the looming threat of politicization but bears the danger of setting a precedent for future cases against humanitarian aid workers. In his op-ed for The Washington Post, Warren himself explained that he feared his case “may set a dangerous precedent, as the government expands its definitions of ‘transportation’ and ‘harboring’,” leaving both humanitarian aid organizations and mixed-status families in peril. Piling onto the pressures, international organizations have expressed immense scorn over the US persecution of the humanitarian workers. UN Human Rights Officials have called for the US to drop the charges, noting the Sonoran desert as one of the deadliest migrant corridors accounting for over a third of all migrant fatalities. Amnesty International additionally released a statement urging the US to drop the charges and instead pursue shielding the lives of migrants as a humanitarian responsibility. With such tremendous pressure and the future of migrant aid prosecution resting upon the case of one man, it isn’t one for jurors to take lightly. 

Recently, it was announced that the jury in the case of Scott Warren could not reach a verdict, ending the case in a mistrial. Not surprising, right? Some attribute the decision against convicting Warren to a phenomenon referred to as “jury nullification.” The ACLU describes nullification as “the power of jurors to vote against convicting criminal defendants under laws that the jurors believe are unjust.” Under immense backlash to the policies under which Warren is being prosecuted, jury nullification has received critical consideration. In a status hearing on July 2nd, 2019, it was announced that Warren will stand a retrial beginning November 12th. Political views of immigration policy will surely play a key role in whether future jurors choose to follow current laws when evaluating the case of Warren or dismiss them, choosing to exercise their powers of “nullification.” Presently, there is no shortage of cases like Scott Warren’s and each of them holds the risk of setting a perilous precedent by criminalizing aid. But, with phenomenons like jury nullification, there is no guarantee they will get the chance to.

Aaditi LeleComment