Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez stands in court with his attorney and pleads not guilty to homicide during his arraignment at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in San Francisco. Prosecutors have charged the Mexican immigrant with murder in the waterfront shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

Interpretation of SF’s ‘Due Process’ ordinance under scrutiny, in wake of Pier 14 homicide

Two years ago, Mayor Ed Lee signed a law barring nearly all cooperation with federal immigration authorities’ requests for immigration holds in San Francisco — the only exception being violent felons.

The City’s 2013 Due Process for All Ordinance allowed law enforcement to honor immigration hold requests only if the inmate had a history of violent felony convictions and was facing violent felony charges thanks to an amendment inserted into the law by Lee.

But in the wake of the killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle, the mayor is unfairly casting blame on San Francisco’s Sheriff for how he followed the law signed by Lee, say current and former politicians who helped craft The City’s law.

The Pier 14 shooting was allegedly committed by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant with no violent convictions who was released from County Jail as part of The City’s Due Process ordinance, instead of being deported.

“The mayor’s just trying to shirk responsibility for his part in crafting legislation that required the Sheriff to act the way he did in the case of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez,” said Supervisor John Avalos, the author of the City’s Due Process law.

In the days following the July 1 shooting death of Steinle, allegedly by Mexican citizen Lopez-Sanchez, Lee has cast much of the blame for Lopez-Sanchez’s release on Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s apparent misreading of The City’s sanctuary law for failing to communicate with immigration officials.

“In 2013, when the City debated immigration detainers, Mayor Lee insisted on allowing law enforcement some discretion in when to honor or not honor detainers,” said a statement from Lee’s office Thursday. “And, as the mayor has said, nothing in any of our laws, Sanctuary, Due Process, or otherwise, prohibits the Sheriff from picking up the phone and calling ICE about a seven time felon who’s about to be released from a San Francisco County Jail.”

The Sheriff’s Department contends it acted within the rules, from Lopez-Sanchez’s return to San Francisco on a marijuana warrant to their communication with ICE and Lopez-Sanchez’s final release.

Lopez-Sanchez, who has pleaded not guilty to a first degree murder charge, has been convicted five times for illegally reentering the country, according to the complaint filed by the District Attorney’s Office.

Meanwhile, others are now defending the Sheriff from attacks by Lee, pointing out that Mirkarimi’s staff acted according to the letter of the law, and simply communicating the presence of someone wanted by ICE would be a violation of those rules.

Former police commissioner and immigration rights lawyer Angela Chan said on KQED radio earlier this week that Mirkarimi’s department acted in the right when it comes to their dealing with Lopez-Sanchez.

In fact, she says federal court rulings on the matter have clearly found ICE holds violate the Fourth Amendment since they are not signed by a judge. “They are just ICE holds signed by agents,” she said. The City’s Due Process for All Ordinance — 51 out of 58 counties in the state have similar ordinances — was passed to prevent such abuses, she said.

“I think what’s escaping blame is ICE’s failures” she said, noting that ICE is required to get court orders or warrants before they pick people up.

Former state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who authored the state law, the Trust Act, which was used by Avalos as a model for his ordinance, says Lee has politicized the issue by blaming Mirkarimi.

“It’s shameful that they have another political agenda rather than working with the Sheriff,” said Ammiano. “Whether or not the Sheriff is responsible … I think the mayor is muddying the waters here because they don’t want Mirkarimi reelected.”

The details of how and why Lopez-Sanchez ended up in San Francisco have been inconsistently related by officials. But, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Sheriff’s Department, Lopez-Sanchez ended up in County Jail through the normal protocol for warrants.

Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said whenever a prisoner is set for release the prison checks outstanding warrants. If one is found, the jurisdiction in question is contacted. In Lopez-Sanchez’s case, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department was contacted on March 23 and told the Victorville facility to hold Lopez-Sanchez for transport to The City.

“If it’s an outstanding felony warrant we are required to process them,” said Freya Horne, Sheriff’s legal counsel.

ICE officials say they told federal prison officials in 2011 and 2013 that they wanted Lopez-Sanchez held. Then, on March 27, ICE asked the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to hold him for pickup.

“When ICE received the automatic electronic notification indicating the subject had been booked into San Francisco County custody, 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 ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice.

Mirkarimi’s office says that ICE knew The City’s policies — Department of Homeland Security officials were told as much when they last met with Mirkarimi — and could have gotten a court order or federal warrant for Lopez-Sanchez before he was released from prison or while he was in County Jail.

“Calling ICE would be violating the intent of the law,” said Horne, who explained that communicating with ICE, as Lee suggested, about when an inmate is being released would violate the intent of the Due Process for All Ordinance that Lee signed.

There has not been one ICE detainer request honored this year, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff is scheduled to hold a press conference today to lay out the department’s actions in the case Lopez-Sanchez case.

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