Kathryn Steinle was only 32 years old when her life was cut short by a stray bullet from a gun that ricocheted off the pavement of Pier 14 in San Francisco, where she happened to be taking an afternoon walk. This random act of senseless violence was difficult enough for Steinle’s family to swallow before they learned that the gunman was an illegal immigrant named Francisco Sanchez — a repeat drug felon — who had been deported five times and had been held in San Francisco City Jail just weeks earlier. Sanchez would have been deported as a result of his arrest, but the city of San Francisco refused to hold Sanchez for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials because of San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” policy. Sanchez was accordingly dumped back out onto the streets where he stole a gun and ultimately killed Steinle.
Steinle’s family filed a federal lawsuit in May alleging that the city of San Francisco, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, and ICE were jointly responsible for Steinle’s death — as well as the Bureau of Land Management, who apparently owned the gun that Sanchez used to kill Steinle. The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that if the city of San Francisco and ICE had properly enforced United States immigration laws, Sanchez would not have been in the country at the time Steinle was shot and killed.
The lawsuit faces a number of legal hurdles, and in a series of motions that were argued in court Friday, the agencies named as defendants in the lawsuit have asked that the case be dismissed. Generally speaking, government agencies cannot be held responsible for the actions of criminals who are released from prison, at least not based on the premise that the release was wrongful. Lawsuits against parole boards and other similar entities are generally disfavored and disallowed under the law due to public policy concerns related to prison overcrowding.
Government lawyers have argued that Steinle’s case should fall under the same principle, and many legal experts have agreed that her case will likely be thrown out on legal grounds. However, the lawsuit has served to keep the embarrassing and devastating effects of sanctuary city policies like San Francisco’s in the news, which is doubtless one reason why the city is so anxious to have the case dismissed.