In the wake of COVID-19, many Michigan courts have utilized Zoom as a mechanism to online hearings. At first, this was thought to be a way to handle massive court dockets while preserving a defendant’s constitutional rights. A recent article on NPR has caused great concern in the legal community. Today, we are going to discuss how this technology could harm the Michigan criminal justice system. Let’s first review what Zoom is how it works.
Zoom Video Communications is an American remote conferencing services company headquartered in San Jose, California. The company was founded in 2013 provides a remote conferencing service that combines video conferencing, online meetings, chat, and mobile collaboration. As of 2020, Zoom is said to have over 1,000,000 users as of 2019, but with the Coronavirus, things changed dramatically.
The COVID-19 Epidemic
In early 2020, usage of Zoom increased sharply as schools and companies adopted the platform for remote work in response to the coronavirus pandemic, rising 67% from the start of the year to mid-March. Since the epidemic has intensified, news outlets have reported that thousands of educational institutions switched to online classes using Zoom. The company offered its services to K–12 schools free of charge in many countries. These measures have contributed to a sharp rise in Zoom usage; for example, in one day, the Zoom app was downloaded 343,000 times, with about 18% of those downloads originating in the United States. Zoom gained over 2.22 million users in the first months of 2020, which is more users than they amassed in the entirety of 2019. Consequently, by March 2020, Zoom shares increased to US$160.98 per share, which is a 263% increase from initial share prices when Zoom first went public. Zoom appeared to be the wave of the future until hackers took over.
The FBI has reported that hackers, known as “Zoombombers,” have created a severe data breach in the Zoom technology. Zoombombers have disrupted an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York, Sunday school in Texas, online classes at the University of Southern California, and a city meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This has caused significant concerns for the Michigan criminal justice system. We spoke to top criminal lawyers in our state to obtain their views on the topic.
The Criminal Defense Perspective
Scott Grabel is the founder of Grabel and Associates and has built the top criminal defense firm in the state of Michigan. When asked about “Zoombombing” and its effect on the criminal justice system, Grabel stated, “There is a great concern of using the technology in our court system. While most court proceedings are matters of public record, there is a chance to invade the privacy of those on facing unfounded charges. If the hackers can compromise the data utilized, this cyber-attack can lead to a slap in the face to the United States Constitution.”
William Amadeo is a partner at McManus and Amadeo in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a Senior Associate for Grabel and Associates. Amadeo is known as one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the state of Michigan and provided his thoughts on this issue. Amadeo said, “What happens when we have an HYTA issue? What happens when there is a deferred sentence in place? What if we run a preliminary exam and now witnesses that were sequestered can watch it on their phone and try to destroy our case. Do I even have to address the danger this presents in jury trials? In addition to my concerns on the criminal docket, what is going to happen to schedulers and court clerks? This is going to continue to be a nightmare for all. We need to work as a team or not work at all.”
Matthew McManus is a partner at McManus and Amadeo and is known as one of the top criminal law motion writers in Michigan. McManus said, “I guess a big fear right now is the motion that is argued in seclusion and cases made under seal. If the attorney-client privileged and the duty of confidentiality have the potential to be breached, the courts should not be using this technology.”
Joseph Brugnoli is a Senior Associate for Grabel and Associates and known as one of the top criminal defense lawyers in Kent County, Michigan. When asked for commentary on this issue, Brugnoli stated, “It’s amazing where we are as a society. From my earlier career as a police officer to my current career, one thing that has always been stressed on both sides of any case is the concept of privilege. If the Zoom technology compromises this, we need to find alternative methods of conducting hearings. We are running a great risk of violating cannons or professional responsibility if we do not come up with productive solutions.”
Scott Grabel went on to add, “The FBI has received multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by obscene and hate images and threatening language. The bureau’s Boston office has taken to social media to warn society of these dangers. We need to examine this issue in our state.”