SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU and wires) - Political finger-pointing continued as San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi faced news cameras Friday and traded accusations with federal immigration officials and Mayor Ed Lee over how the case of the Pier 14th shooting suspect, a convicted felon who'd been deported five times to Mexico, should have been handled.
The case has spurred a national debate on immigration laws and the role local authorities should play in enforcing federal immigration laws.
Sheriff Mirkarimi blamed federal authorities for the release of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who is charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a Bay Area woman Kate Steinle as she walked on the popular waterfront pier. Lopez-Sanchez has claimed in news interviews that the shooting was an accident.
Lopez-Sanchez was released from federal prison into ICE custody in Los Angeles on March 26th and ICE officials say they handed him over to San Francisco because of a 1995 warrant on marijuana.
"ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) should have just deported him," Mirkarimi said Friday, "They didn’t need to bring him back...We didn’t seek him out."
The sheriff said in the 20 years since the San Francisco charge was filed, Lopez-Sanchez had been deported four times. Mirkarimi says at no time during that period did federal authorities contact San Francisco about the marijuana charge.
"San Francisco rarely prosecutes for marijuana," Mirkarimi said.
Lopez-Sanchez appeared before a San Francisco judge on March 27th and prosecutors asked that the marijuana charge be dismissed. The judge agreed. The Sheriff's Department held Lopez-Sanchez in custody until April 15th, when they released him after finding no outstanding criminal warrants.
ICE officials say they filed a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request with the Sheriff's department and asked for notification when Lopez-Sanchez was released from the county jail.
Mirkarimi said that federal authorities failed to provide any legal basis to keep Lopez-Sanchez in custody, and should have obtained a court order to detain him.
"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," Mirkarimi said.
ICE officials were quick to contradict Mirkarimi's characterization of the case.
"We strongly disagree with the Sheriff’s characterization of the facts in this case," said Virginia Kice, ICE West Regional spokeswoman in a prepared statement. Kice says deportation orders such as the one for Lopez-Sanchez are civil actions.
"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. There is no such document, nor is there any federal court with the authority to issue one," Kice said in the statement.
UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram says immigration is squarely under federal jurisdiction and the U.S. Supreme court in reviewing Arizona's more stringent laws has not made a definite ruling.
"The Supreme Court has not directly ruled on sanctuary city policies. It's only discussed the other type of legislation what exists in Arizona and says we're not going to intervene in that," Aviram said, "It leaves it open to each locality which way it chooses to go in terms of the level of cooperation with the feds."
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee criticized the sheriff in a written statement that said, "Communicating with federal law enforcement agencies in these cases is simply common sense and in the best interest of public safety."
"The Mayor is throwing his own law under the bus," Sheriff Mirkarimi responded, "He's simply trying to walk away or run away from the ordinance he signed into effect."
Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant remains in custody on $5 million bail, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder with malice aforethought and weapon enhancements.
San Francisco Police Forensic Crime Laboratory on Friday confirmed that a gun recovered from the San Francisco Bay is the weapon that was used in the homicide. The ballistic comparison confirmed that the fatal round that struck the victim was from the gun recovered in San Francisco Bay.
The firearm was issued to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement ranger who was on official government travel in San Francisco when his vehicle was broken into and the firearm was stolen.
San Francisco police are continuing to investigate who stole the firearm from the ranger's vehicle and how Lopez-Sanchez obtained the gun.