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How to Make Sure There's Another Kate Steinle

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

San Francisco resident Kathryn Steinle, 32, her father and a friend were strolling in July along Pier 14, when a bullet struck Steinle in the chest. Two hours later, Steinle died. For Jim Steinle and Liz Sullivan, the shooting presented every parent's nightmare. For the city of San Francisco, the shooting devolved into bad press. It became clear that the apparent shooter, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a seven-time convicted felon and undocumented immigrant who had been deported to Mexico five times, was free because of San Francisco's sanctuary city policies.

Steinle and Sullivan have filed a lawsuit against San Francisco, former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, the federal government and Lopez-Sanchez, who maintains the shooting was an accident. "This tragedy was a by-product of the abuse of authority," the suit asserts, by the sheriff and City Hall -- as well as the "failure" of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to do their job -- and the Bureau of Land Management because a BLM agent left his gun unsecured in his car and it was stolen and used to shoot Steinle. Steinle's "death was both foreseeable and preventable had the law enforcement agencies, officials and/or officers involved simply followed the laws, regulations and/or procedures which they swore to uphold."

The whole mess began, I should note, after federal authorities transferred Lopez-Sanchez to San Francisco because of a 20-year-old warrant for his arrest on marijuana charges. That transfer never should have happened, and Steinle would be alive today if there had been no marijuana warrant lingering. It is nearly impossible for a prosecutor to win such a moldy drug case. After the district attorney dropped the case, the Sheriff's Department freed Sanchez in keeping with a 2013 ordinance that prohibits local enforcement from honoring ICE detainer requests unless an undocumented immigrant has been convicted of a violent felony in the past seven years. (The new sheriff, Vicki Hennessy, says she is working closely with the district attorney to prevent inmate transfers on charges that are bound to be dropped.)

The scene, however, was set: Mirkarimi had doubled down on the dangerous Due Process for All Ordinance when he issued a March 2015 memo that prohibited his staff from communicating with ICE. Steinle family attorney Frank Pitre blames the memo, not the 2013 ordinance, for freeing Lopez-Sanchez. An earlier statute, Pitre maintains, stipulates that the sanctuary city ordinance does not prohibit local law enforcement from communicating with immigration officials when an undocumented immigrant is booked on felony charges.

The Steinle lawyer is downplaying the 2013 ordinance that tells local law enforcement to protect any undocumented immigrant with multiple felony convictions if they are not for violent crimes. That's happening just as the Board of Supervisors is poised to pass legislation to allow the sheriff to communicate with ICE. The qualifiers: if a defendant has been convicted of a violent felony in the past seven years, a serious felony in the past five years or three serious or violent felonies in the past 10 years. There's more: A judge also must find probable cause that there will be a conviction on the current charge. Otherwise, no contact.

I asked Hennessy whether Pitre is right when he says she has the discretion to talk with ICE. "The city attorney has informed me that I can do it, but I've agreed to agree with the spirit and intent of the sanctuary city law." And: "We retained the ability to take action on the most serious cases."

But that's not true. Under the proposed ordinance, someone like Lopez-Sanchez, who was convicted on seven nonviolent felony counts, would be shielded from an ICE detainer request. Of political necessity, Hennessy is agreeing to tie her hands. She believes that her heightened scrutiny of warrants would keep another Lopez-Sanchez out. OK, but what about the next undocumented immigrant who is a career criminal but doesn't have a decades-old marijuana charge and is in jail facing new charges? If he doesn't want to be deported, the safest place for that guy is a San Francisco jail.

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