In an unusual move, a lawyer for a pilot in a 2007 oil spill asked a federal judge in San Francisco today to reconsider the pilot’s 10-month sentence because of an alleged “clear error” in sentencing.

Pilot John Cota, 61, of Petaluma, was at the helm of the Cosco Busan when the container ship struck a fender of a Bay Bridge pillar on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the San Francisco Bay.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston sentenced Cota on July 17 to 10 months in prison for two misdemeanor crimes of negligently polluting the Bay in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act and killing migratory birds.

The sentence was the maximum permitted in a plea agreement in which Cota pleaded guilty in March to the two crimes.

But in a brief filed today, defense attorney Jeff Bornstein alleged that prosecutors misled the judge into believing that Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 1990 to include tougher criminal penalties for oil spills in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil off the Alaska coast.

The attorney argued that while the 1990 amendment “clarified” the law, the statute had always covered oil spills because it criminalizes negligent discharges of toxic pollution, and the potential penalties weren’t changed.

Bornstein charged that the alleged misunderstanding may have caused Illston to impose the maximum 10-month sentence.

He wrote, “Following the Exxon Valdez, there is no evidence that Congress intended to enhance prison sentences under the Clean Water Act for misdemeanor violations.”

Bornstein alleged, “This error occasioned by this misunderstanding is so fundamental that it is appropriate … to correct the sentence.”

Bornstein asked Illston to reduce the sentence to five months in prison and five months in home detention.

A federal court rule allows judges to correct sentences within seven working days – or by July 28 – if there has been a “clear error.”

Jack Gillund, a spokesman for prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, said, “We don’t comment on ongoing cases.”

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