The family of a woman allegedly killed by an immigrant whom the U.S. had deported five times has filed claims against San Francisco city and county, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the federal Bureau of Land Management, alleging that all bear responsibility for her death.
The July 1 shooting of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old medical sales representative, added to the national debate on immigration enforcement — and highlighted the fact that many local law enforcement agencies do not comply with federal requests to hold inmates beyond their release dates for potential deportation.
In March, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez had completed his third federal prison term for felony reentry into the United States from Mexico. He has said that he found the gun that killed Steinle wrapped in a T-shirt, and that it fired accidentally.
Steinle was struck once in the back while walking with her father on San Francisco's Embarcadero.
The weapon had been reported stolen from a BLM agent's car in downtown San Francisco four days earlier.
Frank Pitre, an attorney representing the family, said Tuesday that Steinle's "last words to her father were to help her. Unfortunately he could not do anything at that time … but the words 'help me' have lived with the Steinle family ever since."
By filing the three claims — precursors to lawsuits — the family wants public officials who issued statements in the wake of Steinle's killing to "not only stop the finger-pointing, stop the bickering, but we want to ensure that it does not happen again," Pitre said.
The San Francisco Sheriff's Department had transported Lopez-Sanchez from federal prison in Victorville to San Francisco to appear in court on a 20-year-old bench warrant for marijuana possession and sales. But prosecutors declined to pursue the matter.
Although immigration officials had issued a detainer request for Lopez-Sanchez, San Francisco jail officials did not honor it and instead released him.
Several federal courts have deemed the practice of holding inmates beyond their release dates to be unconstitutional.
A 2013 San Francisco city ordinance limited cooperation on detainers to inmates charged with violent felonies who had a previous violent felony conviction. Lopez-Sanchez had no violent prior felonies and faced no current charges.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi also issued a department-wide memo in March restricting communication with ICE in all cases.
The claim filed Tuesday focuses largely on that memo, contending that it violates a 1996 federal statute stating that a "local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official" from sharing citizenship or immigration information with immigration enforcement officials.
The city attorney's office declined to comment.
In a statement, the Sheriff's Department said, "While Sheriff Mirkarimi can't comment on potential litigation, he continues to extend his deepest sympathy to the Steinle family for their loss."
A separate claim against the Department of Homeland Security, ICE's parent agency, states that Mirkarimi and other Sheriff's Department officials had made clear to ICE that they would not comply with detainer requests absent a federal warrant or court order issued by a judge, and ICE failed to obtain one.
More broadly, it states that ICE and DHS had a "duty to detain and deport Lopez-Sanchez, yet failed to do so."
ICE officials have previously said that no process is set up to obtain such warrants or court orders, that ICE is not required to obtain them, and that Sheriff's Department officials could have simply notified local ICE officials of Lopez-Sanchez's pending release and they would have picked him up.
San Francisco is among many so-called Sanctuary Cities that have attempted to restrict cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials in order to encourage immigrants in the country illegally to report crimes and cooperate as witnesses.
A third claim, against the BLM, contends that the agent's loaded gun was in a backpack in the back of his car "in plain sight" when it was stolen. Bureau policy requires that when not in use, weapons be unloaded and "stored in a secure place, out of sight, under lock and key."
In a statement, a spokeswoman said: "The Bureau of Land Management takes seriously the loss of any human life and we are continuing to fully cooperate with the ongoing investigations."
Steinle's parents and brother said during Tuesday's news conference that Kate was committed to social justice and would have wanted them to press for change.
Brad Steinle, her brother, said the city and Sheriff's Department have "done nothing" to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. His voice cracking, he said he hopes the legal actions will ensure "that nobody has to endure the pain my mom and dad and I go through every day because the system failed my sister."