Federal appeals court rules family cannot sue SF for negligence in death of Kate Steinle

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a negligence claim against the city of San Francisco and a former sheriff by the parents of a woman killed by a bullet from a gun held by an undocumented immigrant.

Kate Steinle, 32, was killed while walking on Pier 14 in SanFrancisco on July 1, 2015 by a ricocheting bullet from a gun held by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate.

Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen with a history of drug convictions and illegal reentries after deportation, was released from San Francisco county jail two and a half months earlier.

Steinle’s parents claimed the city and former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi were negligent in failing to honor a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement request for notification of the release.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that while federal laws require the sharing of some information with ICE, the laws “plainly and unambiguously” do not require notification of release dates.

The court said Mirkarimi was acting within his discretion when he issued a 2015 memo limiting the amount of information jail staff could give federal authorities about the release of undocumented immigrants.

The panel upheld a similar ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in 2017 dismissing the claim against the city and the sheriff in the lawsuit filed by parents James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan.

But the lawsuit still retains a claim against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that the parents can seek to take to trial.

The gun held by Garcia Zarate was stolen four days earlier from a sports utility vehicle that an off-duty ranger had parked along the Embarcadero several blocks from Pier 14. The parents claim the ranger violated a duty to secure the loaded handgun properly.

Garcia Zarate was acquitted in a San Francisco Superior Court trial of Steinle’s murder, but was convicted of being an ex-felon in possession of a gun. He is appealing that conviction. He has contended he found the gun wrapped in rags under a bench and that it fired accidentally when he picked it up.

Andrea Guzman, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said in a statement, “Kathryn Steinle’s death was a senseless tragedy. As a city, we are heartbroken for her family and continue to grieve for their loss.

“The issue before the court was whether the city and its taxpayers can be held liable under these circumstances 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,” the statement continued.

“The court’s ruling allows the city to decide what policies are best to protect all of its residents and make communities safer,” the statement said.

A representative of the parents’ lawyers was not immediately available for comment.

Mirkarimi’s memo was based on a city law, known as the San Francisco sanctuary ordinance, that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities except when required by federal or state law.

The memo generally prohibited employees from providing non-public information, including release dates or times, to ICE representatives except when required by a warrant, court order or federal or state law.

Circuit Judge Mark Bennett, a recent appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that the local rule barring most notifications of release was a policy decision outside the province of the court.

“The tragic and unnecessary death of Steinle may well underscore the policy argument against Sheriff Mirkarimi’s decision to bar his employees from providing the release date of a many-times convicted felon to ICE,” Bennett said in the decision.

“But that policy argument can be acted upon only by California’s state and municipal political branches of government, or perhaps by Congress — but not by federal judges,” Bennett wrote for the court.

In the decision’s conclusion, Bennett reiterated, “Our holding today makes no judgment as to whether or not the policy established by the memo was wise or prudent. That is not our job.”

Garcia Zarate was transferred to the sheriff’s custody on March 26, 2015 to face a previous marijuana-selling charge after he completed a nearly four-year federal sentence for illegal re-entry following deportation. When the marijuana charge was dropped, he was released from the city jail on April 15.

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