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San Francisco’s sheriff strongly defended his department’s release of an undocumented immigrant who allegedly went on to kill a woman, saying Friday the blame should be on federal officials who failed to take the proper steps to keep him in custody.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s comments continued the finger-pointing in the case of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a seven-time felon who had been deported to Mexico five times, according to immigration officials.

Lopez-Sanchez is charged with murder in the random shooting death of a woman in San Francisco this month — a case that has fueled a fresh round of debate over U.S. immigration policies.

Lopez-Sanchez was released from the San Francisco County Jail in April.

Kate Steinle is pictured in a photograph provided by her family.
Kate Steinle is pictured in a photograph provided by her family.

Though U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requested notification when Lopez-Sanchez was released, the deputies never called them because the agency did not provide a warrant or court order, as required by city law, the sheriff said.

“Had ICE sought the requested legal order or warrant, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department naturally and always would have complied if that legal order or warrant would have been presented to us,” Mirkarimi told reporters.

ICE took issue with Mirkarimi’s remarks, saying in a statement that “we strongly disagree with the sheriff’s characterization of the facts in this case.”

“The sheriff’s assertion that ICE is required to provide some form of ‘judicial’ order in order to receive the requested notification reflects a manifest misunderstanding of federal immigration law,” a senior ICE official said. “There is no such document, nor is there any federal court with the authority to issue one. Neither is there a legal requirement that ICE provide a judicial warrant to law enforcement agencies in order to receive such notifications.”

‘Pick up a phone’

Critics say 32-year-old Kate Steinle would still be alive if deputies had simply notified ICE of Lopez-Sanchez’ release. Steinle was killed this month as she took a stroll with her father on one of San Francisco’s busiest piers. Lopez-Sanchez, who says he didn’t know Steinle, has pleaded not guilty to murder and weapons charges.

The case has drawn the attention of presidential candidates and brought a renewed focus on U.S. immigration laws and the role local authorities should play in enforcing them.

The key question is whether San Francisco’s policies set the stage for the shooting by putting a criminal on the streets instead of delivering him into the hands of federal authorities who could have deported him again.

Mayor Ed Lee joined in the criticism Wednesday, asking, “Do I need to educate somebody about how to pick up a phone?”

But Mirkarimi said notifying ICE would have helped facilitate Lopez-Sanchez’s transfer to federal custody, and deputies couldn’t do that without having the required warrant or court order. He said it also would have violated the Fourth Amendment regarding unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The mayor’s throwing his own law under the bus, simply trying to walk away or run away from the very ordinance that he signed into effect,” the sheriff said.

“I really do think the mayor is playing politics with public safety, and I really think it’s disingenuous the way he’s going about it.”

San Francisco is one of about 70 jurisdictions around the country that have policies limiting police involvement in immigration matters, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

Chronology of the Lopez-Sanchez case

The sheriff said he wanted to clear up “distortion” and “misunderstanding” about the sequence of events regarding Lopez-Sanchez, who is now in custody with a bail set at $5 million.

The first date Mirkarimi gave was December 11, 1995, when a San Francisco court issued a bench warrant for Lopez-Sanchez for failure to appear on felony charges of possession and sale of marijuana.

Between 1998 and 2011, Lopez-Sanchez was sentenced to federal custody four times and deported five times.

In March of this year, with Lopez-Sanchez again in federal custody, the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Victorville, California, called the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to confirm the outstanding 1995 warrant. Lopez-Sanchez was then booked into the San Francisco County Jail on the felony warrant, but a court dismissed the charges the next day, the sheriff said.

Lopez-Sanchez remained in jail for another 18 days, however, while deputies confirmed he had completed his federal sentence. Then, with no outstanding warrants or judicial orders to keep him, Lopez-Sanchez was released, Mirkarimi said.

The blame game

Asked whether it would have simply been common sense to notify federal authorities, as they had asked, the sheriff put the blame on immigration officials.

“The common-sense move is exactly what we’ve been stating from the onset, that ICE should have deported him,” Mirkarimi said.

In hindsight, would Mirkarimi have picked up the phone?

“One step even better,” he said. “I would actually go down to their office on Sansome Street and say, ‘Do your job,’ because we’ve been telling them that for 18 months leading up to this very event. ‘Do your job.’

“We were actually following through in the course of our protocol as prescribed by local law. Get a warrant, get a judicial order. We’re being consistent.”

Though defiant about his department’s actions, Mirkarimi called the whole situation “extremely sad.”

“I hope that … this tragic event propels all of us to muster the measured minds of how we can improve public safety without eroding constitutional rights,” he said.