BARNEGAT, NJ - A virtual municipal court session in Barnegat was cut short yesterday when an unknown attacker hijacked the proceedings. Court officials were particularly horrified when a multitude of “Zoom Bombs” interrupted the scheduled docket.
The courts closed statewide earlier this year in conjunction with the coronavirus crisis. Municipal Court Judge Philip M. Miller revealed plans to reopen the courts via remote access in May.
“We’ve conducted three sessions monthly in at least the last three months via Zoom,” shared Lauren Romano, Barnegat Township Court Administrator. “We are using a paid subscription to the platform.”
Barnegat followed the lead of other Ocean County municipalities in listing the link to the virtual courtroom on its website. This may have contributed to the intrusion by uninvited participants.
According to Romano, approximately 60 of 70 defendants were prepared to make court appearances in yesterday’s Zoom call. The court initially puts everyone in a waiting room and mutes them.
Indications that something was amiss began when court officials could hear loud music and people using racial slurs even though the mute feature was in use. A female court participant reported that someone personally messaged her and threatened her with sexual assault.
Court employees were able to remove the named party from the room. A different name entered the virtual proceeding and continued the threats.
“We are required to play a YouTube video that contains an opening statement for defendants,” Romano said. “It got worse when I shared my screen to play it.”
Romano said that she does not know if it was one or more hackers who took over the screen. They began showing pornographic videos and drawing obscene images.
“It was really disgusting,” the local court administrator asserted. “I was devasted that people who were already concerned about court were subjected to this.”
The abrupt ending left litigants hanging as far as their cases and court personnel frustrated. Municipal Court Prosecutor Martin J. Buckley stepped in to help bring a conclusion to matters that could be settled.
“I started calling attorneys and working out cases that didn’t need to go to trial,” said Buckley. “I put the agreements on the record, which will be followed up by affidavits on behalf of the defendants.”
Barnegat Police Chief Keith Germain confirmed the virtual court invasion was reported to the local department. It remains under investigation.
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