The parents of a San Francisco woman who was fatally shot by a man in the country illegally said Tuesday that federal and local authorities contributed to the death of their daughter through negligence and bureaucratic bungling.
The family alleges in legal claims that a Bureau of Land Management ranger left his loaded service weapon in a backpack in plain view in his car before the gun was stolen in June.
The semi-automatic pistol was later used in the July 1 killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle.
BLM spokeswoman Martha Maciel said the agency is cooperating with the investigation of the shooting but she declined further comment.
A ballistics expert said the BLM agent, whose name has not been released, appears to have stored the handgun improperly.
“At a minimum, it should have been stored and locked in the trunk, and usually this would be in some type of box or container that is affixed to the vehicle,” said Ronald Scott, a Phoenix-based ballistics and weapons experts who teaches safety courses. “Leaving a backpack in a vehicle is like leaving a pocketbook in one. It is an invitation to steal.”
The shooting of Steinle triggered a national debate over immigration after it was revealed that the Sheriff’s Department had released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez despite a federal request to detain him for possible deportation.
Lopez-Sanchez was previously deported five times to his native Mexico.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has repeatedly mentioned the killing of Steinle as he calls for a border wall and mass deportations to curb illegal immigration.
The Steinle family and their attorneys filed three separate legal claims seeking unspecified damages from the BLM, San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Such claims must be filed before government agencies can be sued. San Francisco officials have 60 days to decide on the claim. Federal authorities have a six-month deadline.
The family said it would file lawsuits if the claims are denied.
Holding the city responsible for the actions of Lopez-Sanchez could be difficult, legal experts said. Similar lawsuits alleging that so-called sanctuary city policies contributed to killings by illegal immigrants have failed, including a high-profile case in San Francisco.
Courts previously threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the city for failing to turn over a gang member in the country illegally to federal officials before he gunned down a father and his two sons. A state appeals court said the sanctuary policy was not intended to prevent violent crime.
Attorneys also said cities and counties are legally protected from most lawsuits involving police failures to prevent crime.
“It’s difficult,” said Matt Davis, an attorney who represented the Bologna family. “Cities aren’t required to provide police protection.”
The parents of Steinle said they were filing the legal claims to prevent a similar tragedy.
“We’re here not only for Kate, we’re here for every citizen of this country who comes to San Francisco,” Jim Steinle, the father of the victim, said at a news conference at City Hall. “If you think this can’t happen to you, think again.”
Lopez-Sanchez, 45, has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge. He told police he fired the fatal shot accidentally while examining the ranger’s gun after finding it under a bench on Pier 14.
Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said his department was following city law when it released Lopez-Sanchez in April after prosecutors dropped old marijuana possession charges against him.
San Francisco and other cities and counties across the state have enacted sanctuary policies of ignoring so-called detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates thought to be in the country illegally for deportation proceedings.
The Steinle family claimed the sheriff violated federal laws when he issued a memo in March barring jail staff from communicating with federal immigration officials about detainer requests.
Mirkarimi has said his department requires federal officials to obtain a warrant or some other judicial notice in order for his jail to hold an inmate facing possible deportation.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kenya Briggs said Mirkarimi can’t comment on potential litigation but continues to extend his sympathy to the Steinle family for their loss.
The family also accused ICE, an agency within Homeland Security, of failing to obtain a warrant or judicial notice required by San Francisco to detain and deport Lopez-Sanchez.
“The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met recently with members of the Steinle family to express the agency’s profound sympathy for their loss,” spokeswoman Virgina Kice said.