SF looks to relax sanctuary law in case of a rideshare driver accused of rape

A rideshare driver charged with raping an unconscious woman in San Francisco could soon be extradited from Canada after a Board of Supervisors committee begrudgingly agreed Wednesday to relax the city’s sanctuary law for this one case.

The move, which is pending approval of the full Board of Supervisors, would allow the San Francisco district attorney’s office to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the event that the suspect, Ben Azaza, posts bail, gets acquitted or let go if no probable cause is found to continue his prosecution.

Federal officials refused to allow the extradition unless San Francisco agreed to relax its sanctuary policy for this case if those circumstances are met.

Azaza, a foreign national from Tunisia, is accused of raping an unconscious, intoxicated woman whom he picked up while working as a rideshare driver. A no-bail warrant for his arrest was issued in June 2018, which led him to flee to Canada, where he was later arrested, officials said.

Ordinarily, San Francisco’s sanctuary law would sharply limit the DA’s abilty to interact with federal immigration officials. But in order to prosecute Azaza both the DA’s office and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy requested the board’s permission to accede to the federal government’s demands.

As the supervisors on the board’s Rules Committee emphasized, the legislation would apply only to Azaza’s extradition and, they said, would not weaken the city’s sanctuary laws. They noted that the proposed legislation was a concession necessary in the pursuit of justice.

“We are not in any way, shape or form amending our sanctuary law,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who has been a vocal advocate for the sanctuary policy. “We stand by our sanctuary law. It works. We know that it has kept our community safe.”

Ronen added that she believed Homeland Security’s conditions for Azaza’s extradition were being imposed deliberately and arbitrarily by the Trump Administration in an effort to erode protections for immigrants, a sentiment that her colleagues on the Rules Committee agreed with.

Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cristine Soto DeBerry from the DA’s office told the committee that her office had exhausted other potential options for prosecuting Azaza that woudln’t involve giving in to DHS’ demands. If he’s not allowed entry back into the country, the DA’s office could not proceed with the prosecution, she said.

“We do have a victim that would like her case pursued… But we cannot do that without him being physically present,” DeBerry said.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a former Contra Costa County prosecutor, said she was “very comfortable bringing this person back to face justice,” adding that she agreed with Ronen that the ordinance represented a “narrow agreement” with federal officials, not an exception to the Sanctuary City law.

Dominic Fracassa is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dfracassa@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dominicfracassa

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/SF-looks-to-relax-sanctuary-law-in-case-of-a-13557161.php.

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