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Can "stupidity" in Flint water crisis lead to criminal charges?

The lawyer in charge of state Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation, Todd Flood.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, there are some who are calling for criminal charges to be filed against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other state and local officials.

The U.S. Attorney and State Attorney General Bill Schuette's office, as well the F.B.I., are all investigating to try to find out who is to blame.

But how likely is it that anyone will actually be accused of a crime?

“The starting point for any criminal investigation, especially for this type of conduct, is going to be intent,” said Wayne State University Law Professor Peter Henning.

“Everybody knows what happened, that Flint’s water supply has been poisoned so if prosecutors, federal or state, want to bring criminal charges, they’re going to have figure out what was in the minds of whoever they’re trying to identify. Just being stupid … or being negligent, not doing the right thing, is that a crime? The answer is generally no.”

If you're just stupid, that's not going to be a crime, if you go beyond stupidity then there's at least the potential for a criminal charge

“If you’re just stupid, that’s not going to be a crime; if you go beyond stupidity, then there’s at least the potential for a criminal charge,” said Henning, who recently wrote Assessment of Flint Water Crisis May Hinge on Stupidity vs. Criminality for The New York Times.

The lawyer in charge of State Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation, Todd Flood, said potential criminal charges could include official misconduct by public officials and involuntary manslaughter.

But Henning says it would be challenging to prove a serious charge like involuntary manslaughter.

“To prove involuntary manslaughter means showing that someone was reckless, so that they acted in a way that was so far outside of the normal bounds and that they knew it would have an impact,” said Henning. “You'd have to show not only that kind of intent from the decisions related to the Flint water situation but … in a sense, more importantly, you would have to show causation. Certainly the water has been contaminated, but can you link that to a death, and can you, the prosecutor, show that was the actual cause of the death?”

Listen to the full interview to get an in-depth explanation of what would need to be proved to bring criminal charges in the case. 

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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