SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Though they may soon be on opposite sides in a fight over local enforcement of immigration laws, the city of San Francisco teamed up with the feds on Friday to defeat a lawsuit over a woman whom authorities believe was killed by an undocumented immigrant.
Kate Steinle, 32, was shot dead near Pier 14 in downtown San Francisco on July 1, 2015.
Steinle's family sued the city and federal government this past May, blaming her death on the sheriff department's refusal to inform immigration officials before releasing her suspected killer and a federal officer's failure to secure a gun that was used in the shooting.
Steinle's suspected killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been convicted of seven felonies in the United States since 1993, and deported to Mexico five times. He finished serving a 46-month prison sentence in Victorville, California, for felony re-entry three months before the shooting.
The .40 caliber pistol used in the shooting had been stolen from a Bureau of Land Management officer's car four days before Steinle was shot. Lopez says he was aiming at a sea lion; his attorney called the killing accidental. He awaits trial on second-degree murder charges.
Steinle's death became a rallying call for supporters of tougher immigration enforcement, including president-elect Donald Trump, who mentioned Steinle in his speech at the Republican National Convention in July.
It also helped fuel a failed attempt in the U.S. Senate last year to defund "sanctuary cities" like San Francisco, which refuse to help federal authorities deport illegal immigrants.
At a hearing Friday, the Steinle family's attorney Frank Pitre argued an amendment made to the city's sanctuary law in 1992 created a mandatory duty for the city to contact immigration officials before releasing undocumented felons.
"San Francisco said there's no refuge for you if you are a convicted felon and you are undocumented," Pitre said. "You are being taken off the street to protect the general public from being victims of a crime."
But city attorney Margaret Baumgartner said that amendment merely made an exception to the city's policy of not reporting undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. It does not require the city to inform immigration officials about undocumented felons, she said.
"It creates an exception in certain circumstances, but it does not require any particular act," she said, adding the ordinance did not create a private right for individuals to sue the city for not reporting undocumented felons.
When Pitre shot back that a private right of action is not needed to sue the city, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero concurred.
"I agree," Spero said. "The question is the mandatory duty."
Turning to the federal government's culpability in Steinle's death, U.S. Justice Department attorney Robin Wall said the government should not be held liable for criminal deeds performed by others, such as the theft of a gun from an officer's vehicle and use of that weapon to commit a crime.
It is not known whether Lopez-Sanchez stole the gun from the BLM officer's car or obtained it through other means.
The Steinle family's co-counsel Alison Cordova argued the government should be held liable because the federal officer failed to take reasonable steps to secure his government-issued firearm in violation of department manuals, handbooks and policies.
Cordova said the officer should have reasonably foreseen his actions could cause harm when he left a loaded weapon "not in a locked case, not in the glove compartment, not in the center console, or under the seat," but "simply in a backpack in a high-crime neighborhood of San Francisco."
Wall asked the judge to consider the Montana Supreme Court’s 1996 ruling in Estate of Strever v. Cline, which absolved a pickup truck owner of liability after an 11-year-old was shot dead by a gun stolen from his vehicle.
In that decision, the Montana court found “reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion – that the series of intervening acts which included two criminal acts and one grossly negligent act was reasonably unforeseeable."
But Cordova told the judge that liability must be determined under California state law, and that Montana cases would not apply here.
"I can still look to them for guidance," Spero replied.
After about 20 minutes to debate, the judge took the arguments under submission.
The fight to dismiss the Steinle suit comes as a debate over immigration enforcement rages across the nation.
In the weeks since Trump's election victory, mayors and legislators in several cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Oregon, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have vowed to resist efforts to force localities to help deport undocumented immigrants, despite fears that the federal government could punish those cities by cutting federal funds.
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