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June 20, 2008
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Fatigued officer who killed cyclists is charged

Ed. Note: Officer fatigue is a serious and widespread issue throughout law enforcement. Click here for a compilation of articles from PoliceOne columnists on the critical topic. If you have experiences, comments, or prevention/management ideas to share related to officer fatigue, please email the editor by clicking here.

By John Coté, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy was charged Thursday with two misdemeanor manslaughter charges after he ran down three competitive bicyclists in his patrol car in Cupertino, killing two and injuring the third.

Deputy James Council faces up to two years in county jail if convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the March 9 deaths of Matt Peterson, 29, of San Francisco, and Kristy Gough, 30, of San Leandro.

The deputy has been on administrative leave from the sheriff's office since the crash.

 
In March, friends and relatives of the two bicyclists killed in a crash in the Cupertino hills returned to the site to honor the memory of both victims.
(Photo: Lance Iversen, San Francisco Chronicle)

Council crossed the center line on Stevens Canyon Road in Cupertino and struck the three cyclists at 10:25 a.m. on a Sunday, authorities said. Witnesses at the scene said there were no skid marks and that the officer said he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

He was 4 1/2 hours into his shift after working a 12 1/2-hour shift the day before, Council's attorney has said.

Misdemeanor charges, rather than felonies, were warranted because Council was not engaged in serious reckless driving, such as running a stop light, and he did not have drugs or alcohol in his system, Assistant District Attorney David Tomkins said.

A GPS device in Council's patrol car and witnesses indicated that he was not speeding at the time of the crash, Tomkins said.

The California Highway Patrol, which investigated the crash, recommended misdemeanor charges when it forwarded the case to prosecutors in April.

Prosecutors took more than two months to make a charging decision in order to reanalyze a sample of Council's blood at a Pennsylvania lab to look for traces of over-the-counter or prescription medication, Tomkins said.

"We wanted to make sure," Tomkins said. "That's why we ordered a more sophisticated drug screening." The sample was taken about four hours after the crash, he said.

Council was booked into the Santa Clara County jail Thursday and released on $5,000 bail, prosecutors said. His attorney, Mary Sansen, did not return a call seeking comment.

"It's kind of tough. He's a friend of mine and I saw him today," sheriff's Sgt. Don Morrissey said. "We wish him well. We have faith in our system of jurisprudence and that it will treat him fairly."

Anthony Borba, a captain of Gough's Third Pillar Racing Team and a friend of Peterson's, said he was concerned about officers being put behind the wheel after working lengthy shifts.

"My concern is not that they throw this guy in jail," Borba said. "My concern is taking a hard look at who was responsible and whether they were negligent. If drugs and alcohol weren't involved, I think we need to look at the department, his commanding officer and why he was put in a car in that state. It was an entirely avoidable accident if someone is alert and awake."

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