The family of a woman allegedly killed by a Mexican immigrant deported five times from the U.S. has filed a federal lawsuit against San Francisco County's former sheriff, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The July 1, 2015, shooting of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old medical sales representative, added fuel to the already angry, national debate over illegal immigration. It also 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 of last year, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez had completed his third federal prison term for felony reentry into the United States from Mexico. He said that he found a gun wrapped in a T-shirt and accidentally fired at Steinle, mortally wounding her.
The bullet pierced Steinle's back and hit her heart while she was walking with her father on San Francisco's Embarcadero.
Steinle's last words to her father, the lawsuit claims, were "help me."
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.
"On March 27 (2015), when ICE received the automatic electronic notification indicating the subject had been booked into San Francisco County custody, our officers lodged an immigration detainer asking to be notified prior to his release," ICE said in a statement last year. "That detainer was not honored."
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 2015 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.
"By prohibiting notification to ICE necessary for custody, detention, deportation and/or removal of undocumented convicted felons, the March memo deprived Kate of life and liberty without due process," the lawsuit states.
The city attorney's office declined to comment.
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.
Earlier this week, the county Board of Supervisors voted to retain the county's sanctuary protections. The ordinance allows the sheriff to share information with ICE if the prisoner has committed specific types of felonies in the past.
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.
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1:39 p.m.: This story was updated with a statement from ICE.