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Detroit Legal Blog

Could the Flint Water Crisis Lead to Criminal Charges?

Feb 04, 2016, by Maurice Davis in Criminal Defense, Flint, Legal Blog

After the city of Flint, Michigan changed its water supply in 2014 to save money, doctors began to notice increased levels of lead in local children’s blood. Upon investigation, it emerged that the drinking water of Flint was contaminated with unhealthy quantities of lead.

As the story broke on the national scene, more damning facts emerged. For example, Governor Snyder knew of the problem but instead of taking remedial steps for everyone, he ensured that state employees and their families were stocked with safe bottled water. The facts are so egregious that one wonders whether the actions of local and state officials were criminal.

Federal and State Prosecutors Consider Criminal Charges over Flint Crisis

Several state and federal agencies are investigating the conduct of Michigan and Flint officials during and leading up to the drinking water crisis. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that he and his staff would look into whether any laws were broken in connection with the lead contamination crisis.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is determining whether Michigan effectively enforced its drinking water rules, and will offer recommendations on how to strengthen oversight. The EPA’s investigation could also lead to criminal charges if its investigators find evidence of violations of Federal environmental law. The agency is reportedly working with the US attorney’s office in Detroit, the top federal prosecutor in the state.

A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) recently announced that the agency is “investigating the matter to determine if there have been any federal violations” that led to the contaminated water. The FBI’s investigators will work alongside state investigators and the EPA, whose inquiry is limited to breaches of environmental law.

An independent panel appointed by Governor Snyder has already shown where the blame might lie. According to the panel’s findings, the Michigan department of environmental quality was primarily responsible for the contamination of Flint’s drinking water. This deprivation of basic services to this lower-income, predominantly African-American community would appear to be a civil rights violation. For this reason, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission is also conducting an investigation.

Will These Investigations Result in Criminal Charges?

To summarize, the following government agencies are investigating the Flint water crisis:

  • FBI
  • EPA
  • US Attorney’s Office of Detroit
  • Michigan Attorney General
  • Governor Snyder’s independent investigation panel
  • Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Whether these investigations will result in criminal charges against individuals working for the Michigan or Flint governments will depend on a variety of factors. What is certain is that these investigations will uncover damning facts about government incompetence and negligence. Therefore, it’s likely that the responsible parties will be given civil penalties, and that some of Michigan’s institutions will face reforms and staff reshuffling.

The Investigations Need to Show Criminal Intent Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

To obtain a criminal conviction, prosecutors must generally supply evidence of the suspect’s malicious intent, which can be difficult in cases like the Flint water crisis, where the responsible individuals were members of large government agencies. The suspects can easily blame miscommunication or bad policy for their mistakes. Unless some evidence emerges that clearly shows an official’s malicious or criminal intent, it’s unlikely that the Michigan Attorney General’s office will bring charges under state law.

Federal laws, on the other hand, are unique in that they often do not include a requirement for the person being charged to have acted with criminal intent. For example, the environmental regulations enforced by the EPA usually do not contain an element of malicious intent. Therefore, it’s possible that some parties will face criminal charges for violating environmental law.

In any criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove the guilt of the person being charged beyond a reasonable doubt. But when a suspect is acting as part of a large and complex organization such as a government or business, it’s hard to gather evidence that points to individual responsibility. We witnessed a similar situation after the economic collapse of 2008. Despite overwhelming pressure to charge the bankers responsible for the crash, prosecutors were unable (or unwilling) to gather sufficient evidence to prove a single individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

As a former prosecutor, Maurice Davis understands how criminal investigations unfold and how prosecutors build their cases. This enables attorney Davis to effectively defend against wide variety of criminal charges on behalf of his clients. If you’re facing criminal charges in Flint or its surrounding areas, call the Michigan criminal defense attorneys with the Davis Law Group at (313) 818-3238. We’ll give you a confidential consultation of your case — free of charge.