The parents of a San Francisco woman who was allegedly fatally shot by an undocumented immigrant in 2015 can proceed with a lawsuit against the federal government, a U.S. magistrate judge has ruled.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero said in a decision Friday that the parents of Kathryn “Kate” Steinle can’t sue the city of San Francisco or former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
Spero dismissed The City and Mirkarimi as defendants in the wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco in May by parents James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan.
Kate Steinle, 32, a Pleasanton native who had recently moved to San Francisco, was walking on the city’s Pier 14 with her father in the early evening of July 1, 2015, when a she was hit in the back with a bullet.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican citizen with a history of drug convictions and deportations, was arrested an hour later and charged with killing her with a gun that had been stolen four days earlier from the car of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger.
He is due to go on trial in San Francisco Superior Court next month on a charge of second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and his defense lawyer has said he likely found the gun on the pier and discharged it accidentally.
The lawsuit alleged the city and Mirkarimi were negligent in failing to inform federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials when Lopez-Sanchez was released from San Francisco jail two and one-half months before the shooting.
But Spero said that while a U.S. law prohibits local governments from restricting information given to ICE about an individual’s citizenship or immigration status, no federal or state laws require disclosure of a release date:
“No law required the Sheriff’s Department to share Lopez-Sanchez’s release date with ICE, nor did any law forbid Mirkarimi establishing a policy against such cooperation.”
ICE, which had issued a detainer request for notification of Lopez-Sanchez’s release, already knew his immigration status, the magistrate said.
Spero said, however, that the parents’ allegation against the Bureau of Land Management was a viable legal claim, entitling the family to further proceedings in a summary judgment hearing or a trial.
That claim is that the unidentified ranger, by leaving the loaded weapon in a backpack in an unattended car, violated a duty to secure the handgun properly.
“A handgun is indisputably capable of inflicting serious injury and damage — as a deadly weapon, that is its very purpose. … Leaving a gun loaded makes that capability for harm readily accessible in the same way as leaving the key in the ignition of a vehicle.”
No dates have been set thus far for further proceedings in the case.
A lawyer for the parents was not immediately available for comment.
John Cote, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said:
“As a city, we have grieved over the family’s heartbreaking loss. … But the issue was whether The City and taxpayers could be held liable for the actions of a former inmate. Under well-established law, they can’t. The court’s ruling reflected that.”
The shooting intensified national controversy over San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy and Mirkarimi’s interpretation of that policy, which included a March 2015 memo prohibiting sheriff’s employees from giving inmate release dates to federal officials.
Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted of seven felonies, including four drug crimes, and had been deported five times.
He was placed in San Francisco jail on a previous marijuana-selling charge in late March 2015 after completing a nearly four-year federal sentence for illegal re-entry following deportation. When the marijuana charge was dropped, he was released from the city jail.