In an attempt to hold government officials accountable for the shooting death of their 32-year-old daughter Kate, the Steinle family filed a lawsuit against three government agencies.
The suit alleges that those agencies are in part responsible for Steinle’s death, but experts say the family has little chance at prevailing.
“Unfortunately, prior lawsuits against cities over their sanctuary policies that were directly responsible for the murder of American citizens have been unsuccessful due to sovereign immunity,” Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.
Sovereign immunity is the legal principle that governments are immune to lawsuits except in cases where they waive their immunity and set some amount that they will be liable for if a government employee engages in negligent behavior.
Steinle was fatally shot in San Francisco on July 1 by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.
Lopez-Sanchez is an illegal immigrant who had seven prior felony convictions in the U.S. and was deported to Mexico five separate times. He was released from a San Francisco jail in April under a city law barring the jail’s deputies from informing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of his release, despite the agency’s previous notification request.
San Francisco is one of many “sanctuary cities” throughout the country. Sanctuary policies differ from city to city, but generally they instruct city employees and law enforcement not to ask the immigration status of criminal suspects or prosecute undocumented immigrants.
The Steinles filed the lawsuit in hopes that San Francisco and the other 200-some sanctuary cities will reform their policies, which the family claims are illegal, so that no one else will experience what happened to their daughter.
“We feel as though we’ve exhausted avenues, we’re frustrated, and we’re here to make sure a change is made so nobody has to endure the pain that my mom and dad and I go through on a daily basis because the system failed our sister,” Steinle’s brother, Brad Steinle, told reporters during an emotional press conference on Tuesday.
Proponents of sanctuary cities say the policy is necessary in balancing public safety with a respect for civil rights and maintaining trust in immigrant communities so that their residents continue reporting crime.
The Steinles’ lawsuit alleges that the Bureau of Land Management and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi—directly contributed to Kate’s death by neglecting to oversee different aspects that led to her being shot.
Their claim against the Bureau of Land Management is that the agency didn’t follow regulations in properly securing the gun Lopez-Sanchez stole and used to kill their daughter
Mirkarimi, the sheriff implicated in the lawsuit, is accused of failing to detain Lopez-Sanchez. In a statement, Mirkarimi voiced sympathy for the family but says he was only following city policy.
The lawsuit accuses Immigration and Customs Enforcement of being aware that Mirkarimi had no plans to detain Lopez-Sanchez unless they obtained a court warrant, but the agency neglected to do so.
Von Spakovsky said that while the family is unlikely to win, the case still has worth.
“The lawsuit is worthwhile to make San Francisco defend itself, with all the bad publicity that entails,” he said. “If they get embarrassed enough, the city might agree to settle and pay off.”
In 2011, a California appeals court rejected a similar lawsuit. In that case, the wife of Anthony Bologna alleged that San Francisco’s sanctuary policy contributed to the shooting death of her husband and their two sons by a Salvadoran illegal immigrant who was suspected of being a member of a violent gang.
Like the Steinles, Bologna claimed that the city had been negligent by failing to report her family’s murder to federal authorities despite having been in contact with police for drug and violent crimes he committed while a juvenile.
According to CBS, the court threw out this argument, maintaining, “[S]tate law generally protects cities from being sued for injuries unless a city violated a law specifically intended to protect against the alleged injury.”
This case, the court ruled, dealt with laws that weren’t specifically designed to protect against personal injury, so the case was thrown out.
Von Spakovsky says government officials may never be held accountable in Steinle’s case, and that the status quo is unlikely to change under the Obama administration.
“The Obama administration likes these sanctuary policies for political reasons and doesn’t care about the untold suffering they cause,” he said. “What needs to happen but won’t under the current administration is that the federal government should sue cities like San Francisco for their reckless, dangerous policies that violate federal immigration law.”