San Francisco Not Liable in Pier Shooting Death

A portrait of Kate Steinle displayed at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco, Calif.(Paul Chinn /San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The family of a woman shot dead on a San Francisco pier cannot hold the city liable for failing to help deport an undocumented immigrant who fired the fatal bullet, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Monday.

The panel found former San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi acted within his power when he issued a March 2015 policy memo limiting cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Because he acted within his authority, the circuit judges concluded he could not be sued for negligence in the shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle.

“The memo, on its face, reflects a basic policy decision entitled to discretionary immunity,” U.S. Circuit Judge Mark Bennett, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote for the three-judge panel.

Shot dead near Pier 14 in San Francisco on July 1, 2015, Steinle’s death became a rallying cry for supporters of tougher immigration enforcement, including Trump, who as a presidential candidate cited the young woman’s death during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech.

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

The man put on trial for Steinle’s murder, Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate aka Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was a seven-time felon who had been deported to Mexico five times before he landed in a San Francisco jail for marijuana possession. Under Mirkarimi’s new policy, the sheriff’s department rebuffed ICE’s requests to hold Zarate or share his release date so he could be taken into federal custody.

On Monday, the Ninth Circuit endorsed U.S. Magistrate Judge Spero’s January 2017 dismissal of negligence claims against the city, finding the sheriff had no legal duty to help immigration agents detain and deport Zarate.

“No federal, state, or municipal statute or ordinance prohibited him from issuing the memo,” Bennett wrote in the 26-page opinion.

Bennett and his fellow circuit judges refused to opine on whether the sheriff’s department policy was a good idea or not. Doing so would violate a legal principle that discourages judicial interference in elected officials’ discretionary decisions.

“Our holding today makes no judgment as to whether or not the policy established by the memo was wise or prudent,” Bennet wrote. “That is not our job.”      

The Steinle family’s separate claims against the federal government are still pending. Those claims involve a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger’s alleged failure to secure a gun that was stolen from his car in San Francisco and used in the shooting.

A jury acquitted Zarate of murder charges in November 2017 after his public defenders argued the killing was accidental. After the acquittal, Zarate was charged with two federal gun possession crimes.

The federal case is currently stayed pending a Supreme Court ruling in Gamble v. United States, which will resolve whether a person can face state and federal prosecution for the same criminal conduct. Zarate already served time for a state crime of being a felon in possession of a gun.

In an emailed statement, the San Francisco City Attorney Office called Steinle’s death “a senseless tragedy,” but added that the court was tasked with deciding a narrow issue: whether the city could be held liable for the actions of a former inmate.

“The appellate court affirmed that the city is not liable and that federal law did not compel the sheriff to act differently than he did,” City Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Andrea Guzman said. “The court’s ruling allows the city to decide what policies are best to protect all of its residents and make communities safer.”

The Steinle family’s attorney, Alison Cordova of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, Calif., did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Monday morning.

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