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Question of Sanctuary City’s Liability in Murder Ready for Appeal

The question of whether San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy could make it liable for a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant will soon be taken up by an appeals court.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The question of whether San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy could make it liable for a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant will soon be taken up by an appeals court.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero on Friday converted his dismissal of claims against San Francisco to an entry of judgment so the family of murder victim Kate Steinle may appeal his ruling.

Steinle, 32, was shot dead near Pier 14 in downtown San Francisco on July 1, 2015.

Her suspected killer, seven-time felon Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been deported to Mexico five times before he was released by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department in March 2015. Before his release, immigration officials had asked the Sheriff’s Department to hold him so he could be taken into custody. But former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi had just enacted a new policy barring department employees from sharing release dates and other information with immigration authorities.

Steinle’s parents sued the city and federal government in May 2016, blaming her death on the department’s refusal to notify immigration enforcement before releasing her suspected killer, and on a federal officer’s failure to secure a handgun used in the shooting.

In January, Spero dismissed claims against San Francisco with prejudice, finding no federal, state or local law created a mandatory duty for the Sheriff’s Department to coordinate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In March, the Steinle family asked the judge to convert that dismissal into an entry of judgment so the family could appeal his ruling.

“This court’s order made a ruling on an issue of first impression that is hotly contested – i.e., that a local public official can create and implement a law enforcement policy forbidding communication with ICE,” the family stated in their motion for judgment. “Plaintiffs believe there is substantial ground for differences of opinion as to whether federal law allows for such a pervasive policy of mandated non-cooperation.”

Despite San Francisco’s opposition, Spero granted the family’s request, finding it would “advance judicial efficiency” and support “a prompt resolution of plaintiffs‘ claims and certainty as to whether the city defendants might be subject to liability.”

The issue of whether a particular federal statute, 8 U.S. Code § 1373(a), creates a mandatory duty for local governments to coordinate with ICE is also being tested in the lawsuit over President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order on sanctuary city funding.

Trump’s executive order empowers the federal government to strip funding from “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (sanctuary jurisdictions),” making them ineligible for federal grants “except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.”

The statute at issue, Section 1373, bars state and local governments from restricting “any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

San Francisco maintains that it complies with this law because it does send and receive immigration statuses, but it refuses to honor detainer requests or share the release dates of certain undocumented, nonviolent inmates with federal authorities.

The city also says in its lawsuit against Trump that Section 1373 is facially unconstitutional because it “ultimately forc[es] states to allow their employees to use state time and state resources to assist in the enforcement of federal statutes regulating private individuals.”

Last month, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III temporarily blocked part of Trump’s executive order that would allow it to withhold most funding from jurisdictions that refuse help enforce immigration laws.

Orrick has not yet addressed the issue of whether Section 1373, the same federal law the Steinle family relies on to hold San Francisco liable for the 2015 murder, is unconstitutional.

Whether that law creates a mandatory duty for San Francisco to coordinate with ICE when releasing inmates is an issue that appears to be headed for a higher court.

"As a city, we grieve for the Steinle family," San Francisco City Attorney's Office spokesman John Coté said. "There's nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child, but the issue here is whether the city and its taxpayers can be held liable for the actions of a criminal. Under well established case law, they can't. That's why the judge was correct to dismiss the case against the city."

The Steinle family’s attorney, Frank Pitre of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Monday morning.

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