Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Court Accepts RFRA Defenses of Volunteers Feeding Migrants

In United States v. Hoffman, (D AZ, Feb. 3, 2020), an Arizona federal district court reversed the criminal convictions of four volunteers aiding migrants through the faith-based organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. A federal magistrate judge had fined and imposed probation on the defendants for violating federal regulations barring entry into a national wildlife refuge without a permit and barring abandoning property there. Summarizing its holding, the court said in part:
Defendants ... appeal from convictions for violations of the regulations governing the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.... The violations were committed in the course of leaving supplies of food and water in an area of desert wilderness where people frequently die of dehydration and exposure. Defendants, who are volunteers with a charitable organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church, admit the factual allegations made by the Government.... Defendants argue that those actions, taken with the avowed goal of mitigating death and suffering, were sincere exercises of religion and that their prosecution is barred by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.... The Court finds that Defendants demonstrated that their prosecution for this conduct substantially burdens their exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs, and that the Government failed to demonstrate that prosecuting Defendants is the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling governmental interest.
Law, Rights & Religion Project issued a press release announcing the decision.