On January 14, 2021, Michigan’s Attorney General announced indictments of one current and eight former Michigan officials relating to the Flint water crisis. The most serious charges include manslaughter against Michigan’s former Chief Medical Executive (CME), extortion against an advisor to former Governor Rick Snyder, perjury as to another of Snyder’s advisors, and official misconduct against five of the defendants, all felonies with potentially multi-year sentences upon conviction. Former Governor Snyder and three other defendants were charged with willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year sentence.
The Flint water crisis arose after Flint switched its water source in 2014. The alternative source caused increased corrosion in the water supply system, which led to increased concentrations of bacteria and lead in Flint’s drinking water.
All the indictments are based on Michigan law, which defines terms such as “manslaughter” and “neglect of duty” differently than many other states.
Negligence Can Be Manslaughter
In Michigan, a negligent failure to “perform a legal duty” can be manslaughter if that failure causes death. The indictment alleges the former CME’s gross negligence led to the deaths of nine citizens. Although not specified in the indictments, other reports indicate these persons died of Legionnaire’s Disease, as a result of bacterial contamination in Flint’s drinking water. To convict, prosecutors probably need to prove 1) the former CME had information that corrosion in Flint’s water system significantly increased the risk of Legionnaire’s Disease; 2) the former CME took no effective action to warn of the risks or ensure protective measures were in place; and 3) the failure to take these measures was a cause of these deaths.
Neglect of Duty
Michigan public officials can be held criminally liable for “neglect of duty” by intentionally refusing to perform duties to such an extent as to constitute wrongful conduct. Examples from Michigan case law include a judge knowingly allowing perjured testimony and a jail official failing to follow procedures to protect an inmate that claimed to have been sexually assaulted.
The indictment of former Governor Snyder alleges he failed to “inquire into the performance” of public officials under his supervision and failed to declare a state of emergency after learning of the problems with Flint’s water.
To see the news release from the Michigan Attorney General’s office https://www.michigan.gov/ag/0,4534,7-359-92297_99936-549541–,00.html
To see copies of the indictments https://www.michigan.gov/ag/0,4534,7-359-82917_97602—,00.html