Daniel Millis, 31, of Tucson, a former high school Spanish teacher who now works for the Sierra Club, was a volunteer with a group called “No More Deaths.”
In 2008, he and other volunteers placed sealed, gallon-size plastic bottles of water in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a semi-desert area in southern Arizona, in an effort to prevent immigrants entering the United States from dying of exposure.
Group members said they tried to pick up empty bottles later.
Millis was stopped by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer on Feb. 22, 2008, and later convicted in federal court in Tucson of littering a wildlife refuge with garbage, in violation of a U.S. Interior Department regulation.
Millis could have faced a $175 fine, but the federal magistrate who convicted him but suspended the punishment.
In his appeal, Millis argued that the sealed bottles of purified water were not garbage.
A three-judge panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor by a 2-1 vote today, overturning the conviction.
The panel majority said the definition of garbage is ambiguous enough to warrant a lenient interpretation of the regulation.
Judge Sidney Thomas wrote that the wording of the rule, which forbids littering garbage in a wildlife refuge, “is ambiguous as to whether purified water intended for human consumption meets the definition of ‘garbage.'”
In a dissent, Judge Jay Bybee said that “leaving plastic bottles in a wildlife refuge is littering under any ordinary, common definition of the word.”
Millis’ lawyer, William Walker, said Millis was inspired to set out the bottles after he found the body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl who died of exposure in an area near the wildlife refuge.
“This is a victory for humanitarians all over the world who seek to do no more than provide life-sustaining assistance to other people,” Walker said.