The Scott Warren acquittal and providing sanctuary

I speculated that the acquittal of Scott Warren for giving aid to the people crossing the desert regions on the US southern border was possibly a case of jury nullification, the process by which juries acquit someone who is guilty on the facts because they feel that the law is unjust or should not have been applied in that case. Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept says that what happened with Warren was not jury nullification but the government being unable to make the case.

There was also a case of an immigration judge accused of helping an undocumented immigrant escape detention.

I have been reading an excellent book The War Before the War by historian Andrew Delbanco about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and how it helped set in motion the Civil War. I will write more about this book later but briefly the laws in existence since the American revolution required people in northern states where slavery did not exist to capture and return runaway slaves to their owners in the south. For some people, their feeling of obligation to obey the law came into conflict with their revulsion at assisting in a horrible institution. Some decided to defy the law and help the slaves escape farther north and into Canada, other to go along with the law and help in returning the slaves, and yet others tried to find some middle ground such as attempting to purchase the slaves’ freedom. There were also cases in which large mobs of people overcame the authorities in order to free runaway slaves who had been captured by agents of slave owners and were about to be returned to their owners.

Without in any way equating the awful state of slavery with what is going on now in the US, Delbanco says that in many respects the cruel way that undocumented immigrants are being treated now echoes the way that runaway slaves were treated back then, though the consequences for slaves were far more dire. He says that even then, some free states passed laws forbidding their own authorities such as the police from in any way aiding in the capture and repatriation of runaways slaves, similar to the policies adopted by some current local authorities saying that they will be sanctuaries and not aid ICE or the CBP in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants.

The problem is that now, unlike then, the federal government has so much power and money and personnel that it can do much of the work without the aid of local authorities.


  1. says

    This, by the way, is a perfect case as a rebuttal to the “ticking bomb” scenario. Someone can do something that they believe is right, in an extraordinary situation, and ask the court to nullify the law in that situation. There’s no need for the laws to be filled with loopholes -- the jury system is designed to be the loophole where rationality and compassion can leak into an otherwise corrupt system.

  2. VolcanoMan says


    To be fair, this is precisely Harris’ point. That torture should remain illegal, just that its use isn’t always wrong…and that nobody who did manage to save innocent lives via its use is likely to be held accountable for that action (or, for that matter, SHOULD be held accountable). He never advocated for loopholes in the law.

    And lest you think me a Harris fanboi or something, I actually disagree with him on the MORALITY of his statements on torture. Actually, I disagree with him on possibly dozens of things (to name a few: racial profiling, open borders, Israel, the magic of intentions, the causes/nature of racism, valuing free speech over almost anything else…and on and on). So I would by no means want to give the impression that I find his arguments compelling. He is a second-rate thinker who stumbled into a lazy career arguing against moronic fundies (who just about everyone recognizes as wrong), and somehow translated his success in that area into the belief that he is some sort of…uber-rational person whose pronouncements ought to be greeted with a sense of awed gravitas. Fuck Harris indeed. But any time someone misrepresents one of his ideas (and by this, I mean the ideas on which he as actually declared a coherent, clear position, not those where he has been so impossibly vague, it’s impossible to tell exactly what his real position is, giving him the ability to claim he’s being misinterpreted when ANY interpretation could conceivably be a mis-interpretation), a new TEDx symposium is organized (the uber-rationalist version of “an angel gets its wings”)…because it means he’s being persecuted by those mean lefty ideologues, adding to his smugness quotient. You may think he’s already reached peak smug…but I personally fear a smugger Sam Harris.

  3. Owlmirror says

    The tweet by Ryan Devereaux just before the one directly quoted in the OP reads:

    Multiple jurors tell me the same thing: the government needed to prove that it was Warren’s intent to break the law — not provide humanitarian aid — and they failed

    It seems like a very strange thing for the government to build a case on. “Ha! No, you were not really horrified and dismayed by finding the bodies of people dead of dehydration and starvation in the desert and wanted to reduce those deaths! No, we can read your mind and just plain know that you wanted to break U.S. law on immigration, out of sheer hatred and contempt for U.S. law. So there, too! And we’re going to get you for it!”

    WTF is wrong with these people?

  4. springa73 says

    On a different note, I also recently read The War Before the War and thought that it was very good. Looking forward to another post on it!

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