SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. government cannot be held liable for a federal ranger’s stolen gun used to fatally shoot a young woman on a San Francisco pier in 2015, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero found a lack of direct connection between a car burglary and shooting that took place three days later and half mile away made it impossible to hold the government liable for the tragedy.
“In this case, the gun traveled at least some distance from the theft, three and a half days elapsed, the gun changed hands once at the very least, and there is no way to know what else transpired during that time,” Spero wrote in his 14-page ruling.
Spero granted the U.S. government’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by the parents of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman shot dead on a San Francisco pier on July 1, 2015, by an undocumented immigrant.
Her killer, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, said the shooting was accidental. He was acquitted of murder in 2017. Garcia-Zarate said he found the gun wrapped in a rag under a bench on the Embarcadero.
The Steinle family had argued the ranger who left a government-issued firearm in a backpack in his private vehicle parked in downtown San Francisco should have foreseen such a careless act would likely result in harm to others.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski was traveling with his family from his home field office in El Centro, California, to work a temporary duty assignment in Helena, Montana. He parked his SUV in downtown San Francisco at 10 p.m. on June 27, 2015, before going to dinner with his family at a nearby restaurant. He left the car “packed to the brim with five luggage bags, five backpacks” and electronic equipment, according to the Steinle family’s opposition to summary judgment.
The Steinle family argued that Woychowski left a .40-caliber pistol loaded and unsecured, despite BLM policies requiring guns be stored in locked containers, kept unloaded and equipped with trigger locking devices, and that firearms and ammunition “must not be left unattended in motor vehicles or watercraft unless they are physically secured from theft and out of public view.”
At a hearing last month, Spero voiced concern that ruling in favor of the Steinle family could expose people who have guns stolen to “open-ended liability” for crimes committed with stolen property.
The Steinles’ legal team cited multiple California Supreme Court and appeals court rulings finding people could be held liable for damage and accidents caused by stolen trucks and bulldozers that were left unlocked with keys in the ignition.
Spero acknowledged a handgun is equally as dangerous as a heavy vehicle when it falls into the wrong hands, and that a gun owner that fails to secure a loaded firearm “can be held liable under appropriate circumstances for harm caused by the thief.”
However, the judge found those cases distinguishable because the damage was directly caused by thieves who stole the vehicles. In this case, the gun was reportedly found underneath a bench several days later.
“Aside from the fact that the stolen gun was used, there is no evidence that the shooting was in any way connected to the theft,” Spero wrote.
Even if evidence existed showing the thief carried the gun directly from Woychowski’s SUV to the bench where it was found three days later, Spero said he would still find the connection insufficient to establish liability.
The “separation in time, space, actors, and conduct would be sufficient in this court’s view to break the chain of proximate causation between Woychowski’s purportedly negligent storage of the gun and Steinle’s death,” Spero wrote.
Spero issued final judgment in favor of the U.S. government.
Steinle’s lawyer, Alison Cordova of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately return emails requesting comment Monday morning.
Last year, the Ninth Circuit upheld Spero’s January 2015 decision dismissing the Steinle family’s negligence claims against the city of San Francisco. Steinle’s parents claimed the city should be held liable for releasing Garcia-Zarate from jail and refusing to help ICE deport him before he fired the fatal bullet.
In 2017, a San Francisco Bay Area news station reported the BLM promoted Woychowski to a supervisory position five months after Steinle’s death, despite accusations that he violated department policies by failing to secure a government-issued handgun in his private vehicle.
Acquitted of murder by a state court jury in 2017, Garcia-Zarate faces 20 years in prison for two counts of illegal gun possession charges based on his status as a convicted felon and undocumented immigrant. Last month, a federal judge said he would not let potential jurors in that case be questioned on whether they support President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 15.