A federal judge dismissed indictments Friday against two No More Deaths volunteers who were charged with transporting illegal entrants to get medical care in July 2005.
Shanti A. Sellz and Daniel M. Strauss were facing prison time in the high-profile case that was scheduled to go to trial next month.
Attorneys for Sellz and Strauss, both 23 at the time of their arrests, had asked for the charges to be dismissed twice, most recently arguing that the two were being selectively prosecuted.
The two had previously rejected a plea offer with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins said the two were following guidelines that border volunteers had been using for several years without being arrested.
Sellz and Strauss were arrested July 9, 2005, near Arivaca after they were stopped by Border Patrol agents with three illegal entrants in their vehicle.
They were volunteering with No More Deaths, a faith-based group that during the summer provides food, water and medical aid to illegal entrants walking in the desert.
The two said they were following a "protocol" they'd been taught by No More Deaths, checking with a lawyer and a doctor by telephone before they began driving the entrants, whom they described as being severely dehydrated and ill.
The pair did not call 911 or the Border Patrol, as that was not part of the protocol they'd been taught. They were taking the entrants to a medical clinic.
Sellz and Strauss were indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy to transport and transportation of an illegal alien.
Collins ruled that Sellz and Strauss had been told by No More Deaths officials that they could transport sick illegal entrants under certain conditions.
"They were assured that the 'protocol' had been approved by Border Patrol and that the transportation for these medical purposes was not a violation of the law," Collins wrote.
The judge wrote that in the three years before 2005, "no one was arrested and prosecuted for following the protocol."
Collins said his ruling doesn't address whether the guidelines No More Deaths was using at the time broke the law. No More Deaths has since changed its guidelines for volunteers who encounter illegal entrants in distress.
In a court filing, federal prosecutors asked the judge not to dismiss the charges against Sellz and Strauss, saying that No More Deaths representatives had been told in April 2005 by Border Patrol officials that "enforcement action would be taken if a volunteer were to transport illegal aliens."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Irene Feldman, who was prosecuting the case, said in the court papers that "there is no evidence of selective prosecution and it's entirely proper for defendants to be prosecuted."
No More Deaths leaders hailed the decision. "This is a great moment for the borderlands," the Rev. John Fife said. "It is now established that humanitarian aid is not a crime."
It is important to realize that the Border Patrol and humanitarian efforts play two different roles at the border and each party needs to be allowed to act "under the law," he said.
Since the incident last summer, there have been no other incidents between No More Deaths volunteers and the Border Patrol, he said.
Sellz's attorney William Walker called Collins a "fair shooter."
"This has been a horrendous ordeal for (her)," he said of Sellz. "To be charged with a crime for her was devastating."
A Border Patrol spokesman could not be reached for comment.
On StarNet Search our database of illegal immigrants who have died along the border at azstarnet.com/ border