For the last year, residents of Detroit have been facing a water shut-off crisis. The Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) has been actively involved in support of grassroots organizations of Detroiters who are demanding that the City implement the water affordability plan approved by the Detroit City Council in 2006. The NLG is also co-counsel of record in the federal civil lawsuit against the City, now on appeal, which is attempting to stop the current water shut-off policy.
We have recently learned that the Wayne County Prosecutor is prosecuting Detroit City residents who are found to have illegal water hook-ups, on a charge of malicious destruction of utility property contrary to MCL 750.383(a), a five year felony. The NLG is trying to determine the number of people being prosecuted for illegal water hook-ups whose water was shut-off by the City as part of its stepped-up enforcement over the last year. We believe that many of the homes where the City has shut-off water, and which may now have illegal hook-ups, are homes where children, seniors, or disabled citizens reside. To prosecute these people for a five year felony is a draconian approach to this problem.
Based upon our research of the above statute, it appears that to obtain a conviction for an alleged violation of this statute for an illegal water hook-up, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant in some way tampered with a water pipeline, or assisted someone else in doing so; that the defendant acted intentionally to cause water to flow through the water pipeline; and that the water pipeline was the property of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It seems clear that the prosecutor is not entitled to a conviction of a person who simply lives in a house with an illegal water hook-up, even if the resident knows that the water hook-up is illegal, absent some evidence that the resident either him or herself intentionally tampered with the water pipeline, or assisted another person in doing so.
We are also researching to see if there is a viable argument that this statute, as applied to a water pipe-line, violates Michigan’s constitutional title-body requirement. Mich Const 1963, Art. 4, Sec. 24. (The statute’s title refers to electric, natural gas, or communication systems, but not to water pipelines).
More fundamentally, we want to collectively suggest to the Wayne County Prosecutor that to prosecute people who truly cannot pay their water bill with a five year felony is an over-reaction.
We are asking attorneys who are representing Detroit residents charged with a violation of this statute to contact one of our volunteer attorneys who are working on this issue, and let us put our heads together, and see if a collective defense effort will result in a more just outcome for our clients. Please fill out the below contact form, or call our office at 313-925-2626.