U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and the San Francisco Police Officers Association have expressed their deep concern that 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle might still be alive if not for a convicted felon, and undocumented immigrant, who was released from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s custody instead of being returned to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In an open letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Tuesday, Feinstein urged the mayor and the city to participate in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new Priority Enforcement Program.
She said the program, created as part of President Barack Obama’s November 20, 2014 executive actions on immigration, would enable federal law enforcement to better cooperate with state and local counterparts and take custody of individuals who pose a danger to public safety before they are released.
Feinstein said the homicide of Steinle, a Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident, at Pier 14 near the San Francisco Ferry Building last week indicates that San Francisco needs a program that will focus federal immigration enforcement efforts on convicted criminals and public safety threats.
San Francisco has a “sanctuary city” policy that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining an individual on the basis of an immigration detainer when they would otherwise be eligible for release from custody.
Feinstein said that the homicide suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been convicted of 10 crimes, including four drug felonies.
She told Lee in the letter that Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted of heroin possession and narcotics manufacturing and that he was convicted three times for illegal reentry after deportation from the United States.
ICE filed a detainer asking the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to hold Sanchez for deportation, Feinstein said, but she noted:
“The Sheriff’s Department failed to respond to that detainer and did not notify ICE when the individual was released.”
Feinstein said Lopez-Sanchez should not have been released:
“We should focus on deporting convicted criminals, not setting them loose on our streets. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I am looking at whether additional federal legislation may be necessary.”
Feinstein said the release of Lopez-Sanchez was an action that led to last week’s tragic death and urged Lee to take immediate action to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, explaining that the Priority Enforcement Program facilitates the removal of undocumented convicted felons.
“The tragic death of Ms. Steinle could have been avoided.”
A Facebook post by the San Francisco Police Officers Association on Monday was far harsher on San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy and Lopez-Sanchez’ immigration status.
The Facebook post reads:
“Bottom line is a young innocent woman has been murdered in cold blood, in front of her father, by a 5 time deported illegal alien drug dealer. He is an ILLEGAL ALIEN not an undocumented immigrant and if he was where he belonged (Mexico) this innocent victim would still be alive.”
The post goes on:
“If this City and some of its elected official continue with this failed policy then it will happen again.”
Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said at Lopez-Sanchez’s arraignment this afternoon that the death of Steinle was tragic but that:
“… very likely this was an accidental shooting.”
Gonzalez maintained that there is an “aggressive narrative that this case is about immigration,” but he said he believes this case is “more about the ubiquitous nature of guns in our country.”
San Francisco police are continuing to investigate how Sanchez-Lopez gained access to a firearm.
San Francisco police spokeswoman Officer Grace Gatpandan said her office is unable to confirm reports that the gun allegedly used by the suspect belonged to a federal agent.
Lopez-Sanchez pleaded not guilty to murder with malice aforethought this afternoon, with Gonzalez arguing that the shooting was likely accidental.
However, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia told Judge Daniel Flores that the suspect allegedly shot an innocent victim in the back at close range.
Lopez-Sanchez, who has been deported from the United States on multiple occasions for various felonies, was speaking to the court through a Spanish interpreter Tuesday.
Twice during his arraignment Lopez-Sanchez told the judge in English, “I’m not guilty,” although the judge had already heard his plea and was asking him an unrelated question regarding scheduling.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took custody of Lopez-Sanchez back in March, when he was remanded to the agency after serving a multi-year federal prison sentence for felony re-entry following deportation, ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen said in a statement.
ICE turned Sanchez over to San Francisco police on March 26 on an outstanding drug warrant, Christensen said.
San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said the outstanding $5,000 warrant was for selling $20 worth of marijuana at United Nations Plaza in 1995.
On March 27, a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the drug charges against Lopez-Sanchez.
ICE requested he be returned to their custody upon his release, but the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department did not honor that request, according to Christensen.
Christensen said Sanchez had been deported five times, most recently in 2009. According to her record, Lopez-Sanchez’ criminal history includes seven prior felonies, including four involving narcotics.
Gonzalez, however, told the judge Tuesday that Lopez-Sanchez had no convictions for violent offenses and that he had no desire to hurt Steinle.
Bail for Lopez-Sanchez was set at $5 million and he was ordered to appear in court for a pre-hearing conference on July 27.
Different government agencies have conflicting information about Lopez-Sanchez such as his full name, his age, and his criminal history.
The San Francisco Police Department said his age was 39 years old, while the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department said he was 52 years old. Other agencies have said he is 45 years old.