SF murder suspect’s immigration status at center of bickering between local, federal law enforcement

A mourner lays down flowers following a vigil for Kathryn Steinle, Monday, July 6, 2015, on Pier 14 in San Francisco. Steinle was gunned down while out for an evening stroll at Pier 14 with her father and a family friend on Wednesday, July 1. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)

Days after the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle on The Embarcadero, federal and local law enforcement officials are blaming one another for the prior release of the repeat deportee who was charged Monday with Steinle’s murder.

City officials are defending San Francisco’s sanctuary status and some are saying federal immigration authorities knew The City’s law, and how to work around it, but failed to act in the case of Mexican citizen Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Looking somewhat incoherent and speaking in broken English, Lopez-Sanchez was interviewed Sunday on television and appeared to have admitted to killing Steinle, 32.

Meanwhile, federal immigration officials have laid the blame for Steinle’s death on San Francisco’s liberal immigration stance.

“No one in a law enforcement community has a benefit of a crystal ball,” said Virginia Kice, Immigration and Customs and Enforcement spokesperson, who claims San Francisco could have prevented a man with a disregard for the law from committing the crime.

But Freya Horne of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department said that ICE is at fault for losing track of Lopez-Sanchez. “ICE knows our policy…” she said. “If they wanted this person returned to their custody, they would need a legal order from a court.”

Even Mayor Ed Lee, who has defended The City’s law, has pointed out the dysfunction between the agencies.

“I am concerned about the circumstances that led to the release of Mr. Sanchez. All agencies involved, federal and local, need to conduct quick, thorough and objective reviews of their own departmental policies and the decisions they made in this case,” said Lee in a statement.

Despite his misgivings about agency disagreements, Lee defended The City’s law while tacitly laying blame in the lap of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

“Let me be clear: San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Policy protects residents regardless of immigration status and is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons,” said Lee, who added the law he signed gave the Sheriff the power to make a case-by-case determination on detainers.

Still, others say all the finger pointing misses the point. “I do think for all these agencies to point fingers at one another doesn’t really address what could have been and what a lot of people are assuming are mental health issues,” said Leah Chen Price, an immigrant rights staff lawyer with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach.

“I don’t think it’s a Sheriff’s Department or an ICE issue. I think it’s horrible tragedy that makes no sense and everyone is trying to make sense of it.”
Lopez-Sanchez, whose age hasn’t been verified, has been convicted of seven nonviolent felonies and had most recently served five years in a federal prison in Victorville before being sent to San Francisco on a drug warrant March 26. Those drug charges were eventually dropped.

ICE knew Lopez-Sanchez was in Victorville but had no power to override the warrant. Once in San Francisco, ICE requested he be handed over, but his background did not meet The City’s requirements for releasing people to ICE.

“Our officers lodged an immigration detainer asking to be notified prior to his release. That detainer was not honored. As a result, an individual with a lengthy criminal history, who is now the suspect in a tragic murder case, was released onto the street rather than being turned over to ICE for deportation,” said Kice.

The City’s sanctuary law was meant to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crime and to prevent deportation when someone had been jailed for a minor offense.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department will only detain undocumented immigrants when two requirements are met. First, they must have been convicted of a violent felony in the last seven years. Second, that person must also face a current violent felony charge which has passed the preliminary hearing stage.

In Lopez-Sanchez’s case, the second hurdle was not met. Still, the Sheriff’s Department kept him in custody for more than two weeks to make sure he did not have any outstanding warrants. He was released April 15.

On July 1 at around 6 p.m. Steinle was walking down Pier 14 with her father and a family friend when the shooting occurred. She was struck once in the upper body and died soon afterward at the hospital. Lopez-Sanchez was detained that night and booked the next day.

Lopez-Sanchez will be arraigned Tuesday and is being represented by Deputy Public Defender Matt Gonzalez.

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