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ASTHO Files Amicus Brief in Michigan Case, Argues Against Criminally Charging Health Officials During Major Public Health Crises

ARLINGTON, VA (July 23, 2018)—Last week, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) filed an amicus brief with the Genesee District Court in Michigan asserting that criminal prosecutions of health officials based on their professional judgment and decisions will weaken governmental public health’s ability to respond during health emergencies and present additional risks to the public.

The court case is the first of its kind where a standing health official has been criminally charged for an alleged failure to notify the public regarding an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Genesee County in 2014 and 2015. The outcome of this case is of great interest to ASTHO and its members who are concerned that the threat of criminal sanctions based on a health official’s professional, discretionary decisions will endanger public health.

“We are very alarmed by this case, and the fact that a health official can be criminally charged to this extent for doing his job, especially during a public health crisis, is not right,” says John Wiesman, president of ASTHO and secretary of health at the Washington State Department of Health. “ASTHO’s board has carefully considered the allegations in the case. As public health officials, our decisionmaking does not fit within a one-size-fits-all model, but rather includes a thoughtful approach to limiting widespread panic, translating meaningful communication about public health risks and proper efforts to address the crisis at hand, especially when information is subject to change or incomplete.”

“The outcome of this case could have an immediate chilling impact on the entire public health profession and a cascading effect on critical life and death decisions public health officials face every day,” says Michael Fraser, CEO of ASTHO. “The public must trust our public health officials to make the right decision at the right time and the fear of criminal prosecution will stymie their efforts.”

The amicus brief also notes that “the basis for responsible public health communication is scientific knowledge and consensus,” and “[p]ractitioners have a responsibility to examine the quality of the available scientific information prior to performing any communication activity.”

View the full brief here.


ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. territories and freely associated states, and the District of Columbia, as well as the more than 100,000 public health professionals these agencies employ. ASTHO members, the chief health officials of these jurisdictions, are dedicated to formulating and influencing sound public health policy and to ensuring excellence in public health practice.