SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The city of San Francisco can’t be held liable for the death of a woman allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant, a federal judge ruled, but the United States may face negligence claims because a federal officer’s stolen gun was used in the murder.
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 in May 2016, blaming her death on the sheriff’s department’s refusal to notify immigration officials before releasing her alleged killer, and a federal officer’s failure to secure a gun used in the shooting.
Steinle’s suspected killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, has been convicted of seven felonies in the United States since 1993, and was deported to Mexico five times. After completing a 46-month prison sentence in Victorville, for felony re-entry, he was turned over to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to face charges for selling marijuana. The charges were dropped, and he was released on March 27, 2015, despite a request from federal immigration authorities to hold him so he could be taken into custody.
Before the shooting, then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi issued a memo, in March 2015, barring Sheriff’s Department employees from sharing the immigration status and release dates of inmates with federal immigration authorities. The policy was intended to harmonize department rules to comply with San Francisco’s Sanctuary City law.
Steinle’s family claims the policy violated state, federal and local laws, making the city liable for claims of negligence.
But in a Jan. 6 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero found that none of the laws cited by the Steinle family created a mandatory duty for the Sheriff’s Department to coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“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,” Spero wrote in his 49-page ruling.
Spero also rejected claims that the policy violated due process based on the state-created danger doctrine established in the 1988 Ninth Circuit ruling in Woods v. Ostrander.
Finding that a policy decision that increases danger to the public could give rise to such a claim “would represent a significant expansion of the doctrine and would subject virtually any decision by policymakers in the field of public safety, who often must weigh known risks to public safety on either side of a decision, to post-hoc second guessing,” Spero wrote.
The judge also rejected claims that the policy violated due process. Such a finding would have “far reaching implications,” Spero wrote, such as forcing police and fire chiefs to hold public hearings for every minuscule alteration of policy, including changes to schedule shifts.
Spero dismissed all claims against the city without leave to amend, finding any amendments would be futile.
John Cote, spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, said the city grieves for the Steinle family, but agrees with the judge’s ruling.
“There is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child,” Cote said. “But the issue that was before the court was whether the city and its taxpayers could be held liable for the actions of a former inmate. And under well established case law, they can’t. The court’s ruling reflected that.”
Claims Against the United States
Turning to claims that the federal government should be held liable for not detaining Lopez-Sanchez before the shooting, Spero found that ICE cannot be sued for deciding how best to deploy its limited resources.
The judge said the question of whether ICE should have sent agents to the Sheriff’s Department while Lopez-Sanchez was in custody, on the chance that he would be turned over, “necessarily implicates policy questions of whether those resources would be better spent pursuing other criminal aliens who might pose a greater known risk to the public or whom ICE might have a greater chance of successfully apprehending than someone like Lopez-Sanchez, whose release date was unknown.”
But the judge refused to rule out the possibility that the United States could be found negligent due to a Bureau of Land Management ranger’s failure to secure a gun that was stolen and used in the shooting.
The .40-caliber pistol was left in a backpack in an unattended vehicle in downtown San Francisco, according to the Steinle family’s complaint.
California courts have not addressed a gun owner’s liability for harm caused by stolen firearms, Spero wrote, but he found a number of California rulings that held owners of stolen vehicles negligent for crimes perpetrated with their vehicles.
Spero cited cases in which owners were found liable for property damage and injuries caused by stolen bulldozers and trucks left unattended and unlocked overnight with keys in the ignition.
The degree of connection between the negligent conduct and injury is one element that must be determined to establish liability, the judge said.
Though it is not known whether Lopez-Sanchez stole the gun from the ranger’s vehicle or obtained it through other means, Spero said he must construe the allegations in a light most favorable to plaintiffs at this stage.
Spero found it “plausible” that Lopez-Sanchez stole the gun himself, and refused to dismiss claims of negligence over the stolen gun.
But the judge dismissed with leave to amend claims that the ranger violated policies on firearm security and safety, as detailed in department manuals. The plaintiffs must show the manuals qualify as a source of duty of care in order to press those claims.
Abraham Simmons, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, declined to comment.
The Steinle family’s attorney Frank Pitre, with Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.