Criminal Charges Have Been Dropped Against Officials in Flint. What Comes Next?

Eight pending criminal charges have been dropped against public officials regarding their handling of the Flint water crisis.

Eight pending criminal charges have been dropped against public officials regarding their handling of the Flint water crisis. Barbara Kalbfleisch/Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Those who want to hold public officials accountable for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan are upset about the latest developments—but the case isn’t over.

Five years after it first became public, the Flint water crisis is still ongoing. Though public health officials have officially declared the water safe to drink, many residents are justifiably skeptical, and continue to use bottled water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.

A passionate group of city residents have pushed for years to hold public officials accountable for what they say was willful neglect of a public health emergency and an intentional campaign to hide the truth from residents. Last week, they received news that has caused some community members to question if justice will ever come.

In a joint statement, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who are leading the state’s effort to criminally prosecute public officials involved in the crisis, announced that they were dismissing the pending charges against eight defendants. “Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories embraced by the [former team], particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence,” the statement reads.

The leadership changes at the head of the prosecutorial team came after the election of the new Democratic Attorney General, Dana Nessel, who succeeded Bill Schuette, a Republican, in January. On the campaign trail, Nessel promised to change the course of the investigation, which has cost over $20 million already, and recently fired the former special prosecutor, Todd Flood, for failing to review thousands of documents.

Hammoud also made headlines this month for requesting electronic records from former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, leading some to believe that he may also face charges soon. Snyder maintains that he already handed over records at the end of his term.

Community members have had mixed reactions to the dismissal of the cases, which included charges of involuntary manslaughter against five former state and local officials. Fifteen officials were originally charged, but seven took plea deals for misdemeanors.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver issued a statement saying that she is satisfied that the case is now being handed with the “seriousness and dogged determination that it should have been handled with from the beginning.” In contrast, Nayyirah Shariff, the director of the group Flint Rising, told the Detroit Free Press that the move felt like "a slap in the face to Flint residents” and that she does not know what to do about the “bungled” investigation. "I'm very disappointed with Dana Nessel's office because she ran on a platform that she was going to provide justice for Flint residents, and it doesn't seem like justice is coming,” she said.

But Lance Gable, an associate professor of law at Wayne State University, said residents shouldn’t assume the case is just done. “Things are very much in flux right now. The new team has quite a lot of experience as prosecutors, more so than the old team,” he said. “They initially asked for a six-month delay to assess the case, but then a month later, they dropped the charges because they were concerned about the structure of the case and the evidence to support some of the more aggressive charges, like involuntary manslaughter.”

The crisis began in 2014, when Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. The water was not treated sufficiently, and lead pipes introduced contaminants that exposed over 100,000 people to serious health conditions. Children in Flint were found to have elevated blood lead levels, and a federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016. That same month, 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease, which is waterborne, were reported, resulting in 12 deaths.

If Hammoud and Worthy decide to refile charges in the case, the public health officials and emergency managers involved may end up facing the same, less severe, or more aggressive charges. Those criminal cases are separate from two other legal processes in Flint: one in which the state and individual public officials are being sued in civil court by residents through a class-action lawsuit, and one in which the state is suing private companies that managed the water plant.

Because there are conflicting interests, the Attorney General’s office is supposed to be segmented, with Nessel defending the state in the class-action civil case, while Hammoud and Worthy prosecute state officials in the criminal case, but there has been some concern that the firewall hasn’t been strong enough. All attorneys are working from the same underlying investigative sources, Gable said, but they shouldn’t share legal strategies or arguments.

The particular case of the state prosecuting individual public officials in criminal court for negligence is unusual. “Something unique in this case is that most of the time when civil officials are prosecuted under criminal law, it is for corruption charges,” Gable said. “This is a very different situation. Officials here made decisions that exposed the population to risk of harm.”

If charges are reinstated, Gable said that this might be the first time that this kind of criminal case proceeds against civil officials in the U.S. For reference, he cited an 2016 Italian case in which eight government officials was prosecuted for not warning the public about an impending earthquake that killed 309 people. Only one of them served time in prison on a manslaughter charge, but the cases made their way to the Italian Supreme Court and stirred international interest into the prosecution of public servants who fail to do their jobs.

The question of criminally prosecuting public officials also arose this month in the case of Scot Peterson, a deputy who faces 11 charges, including child neglect, for failing to intervene during the 2018 Parkland school shooting. Legal experts have said that proving negligence in that case will be an uphill battle.

Gable said that the bar for proving serious charges, like involuntary manslaughter, is justifiably high, and “we risk going down a dangerous path when we bring criminal charges against officials who don’t live up to our expectations” because people may not be willing to take jobs with great public import due to fear of liability, and because it opens up situations where politicians might prosecute their opponents. But that situation, he noted, is very different from people who recklessly endanger others’ lives. “Flint might be one of those cases,” he said. “If they can prove that state officials didn’t reveal a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak because they were worried about bad press, for example, then criminal charges might be warranted.”

Nessel’s office now plans to hold a “community conversation” with Flint residents on June 28, and said that they will not speak to reporters until after that meeting.

Gable said that scrutiny of the attorney general’s decisions and handling of the cases about past wrongs should be balanced with reforms that look to the future. “Putting people in jail would be satisfying, but that doesn’t actually fix the infrastructure problems that caused this crisis,” he said. “We shouldn’t pursue these cases to the exclusion of more forward-thinking efforts to support people who have been impacted, and to make sure that in the future, residents of Flint have clean water, good health, strong education, and are supported in all aspects of their lives.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Los Angeles Is in Crisis. So Why Isn’t It Building More Housing?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.