Mike Force










‘Zoom bombing’ temporarily stops court hearings in Bexar County
Aug. 6, 2020 Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 2:14 p.m.

Bexar County’s civil district court judges have been conducting hearings via video conference for several months now, successfully moving cases forward in a complicated, often distressing COVID-19 world.

They’re even getting ready for the county’s first virtual jury trial.

So court officials and visitors alike were startled when seven separate hearings were suddenly “Zoom-bombed” this week with profanities, sexual images and a potential security threat.

The perpetrator was quickly quashed, but it was disturbing.

“Our judges responded wonderfully,” said Judge Mary Lou Alvarez, judge of the 45th Civil District Court, who is serving as presiding judge over the civil courts. “We were only suspended for a moment.”

It happened as virtual proceedings were just getting started Wednesday. The judges in the seven courts were live streaming their proceedings on their respective YouTube channels, with participants calling in via Zoom from their offices and homes, when somebody broke in with the inappropriate material.

Alvarez said the judges quickly stopped their YouTube feeds and changed their credentials. It was just a matter of minutes before all the hearings had resumed. Business was concluded without incident.

While officials declined to provide details about the perpetrator, he or she will be subject to the laws of the court, said state District Judge Ron Rangel, administrative judge over the civil and criminal district judges.

“It’s direct contempt of court. The punishment range is a fine of up to $500, confinement in the county jail for up to six months or both,” Rangel said. “Zoom proceedings are the equivalent of a courtroom so whatever that person did would be punishable as if they did it in a courtroom.”

While Wednesday’s troublemaker was the first to interrupt court proceedings in Bexar County, the FBI has reported close to 200 incidents across the nation where hackers broadcast explicit images of child sexual assault in public meetings or events.

That’s not only illegal, FBI officials say, but possibly a violent crime; every time such material is viewed, the depicted child is re-victimized, agents said.

In a news release warning organizations and schools that conduct virtual meetings to be on the alert for such hacks, the agency said anyone who unexpectedly views such material is potentially considered to be a victim.

Alvarez said Bexar courts have not experienced anything of that magnitude, and praised the officers of the court — clerks, bailiffs, coordinators and the jurists — for responding quickly to the Wednesday Zoom bomber.

“We have been streaming since April, and Aug. 5 was the first time this has happened,” she said, adding that the civil district courts have handled 100 or more cases by video conference, just on their morning dockets.

And courthouse officials are preparing to seat their first virtual jury for a trial in Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga’s 57th state District Court.

Arteaga said protocols are in place to prevent hacking during the virtual jury trial. The proceedings will be accesible to the public, as required by law, but they will only be able to watch, not participate. Permission to speak or share materials at the proceeding can only be granted by the host, who is the judge.

“There could be 100 other technical glitches, but this I don’t foresee happening,” Arteaga said. “We have advanced settings, and they (jurors) can’t share their Zoom screen.”

Potential jurors have until Wednesday Aug. 12 to finish online questionnaires, and Arteaga hopes the virtual civil jury trial will be held Aug.19.

“We have had good responses, we just need attorneys to participate,” she said.

Elizabeth Zavala covers county and state courts in San Antonio. To read more from Elizabeth, become a subscriber. ezavala@express-news.net | Twitter: @elizabeth2863

Elizabeth Zavala is a reporter and editor on the Express-News Crime Team. Born and reared in San Antonio, she graduated from Fox Tech High School in 1981 and has been a newspaper journalist since she graduated from Texas Woman’s University at Denton in 1985. She has worked at five daily newspapers in Texas, including The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Denton Record-Chronicle.

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