Wyandotte County courts brought to near standstill by cyber attack, still operating in pre-computer-era mode

The mid-April cyber attack on Wyandotte County has absolutely crippled the courts, leaving them still unable to hold many hearings or even summon jurors for trial.

Judges, still unable to connect to their FullCourt case management computer system, have been reduced to using pen and paper – at least when hearings are even possible.

“It has had a drastic impact on our ability to operate,” Chief Judge Robert Burns told The Heartlander. “We cannot interact with the court operating system. We cannot perform e-filing functions. We cannot summon jurors.”

While attorneys with paper files have been able to proceed in some civil cases, criminal cases were ground to a complete halt for several weeks. That’s because the district attorney’s office, which had gone paperless prior to the attack, announced April 21 it did not have access to its files and would cease all prosecutions and hearings because of the attack.

“In an effort to avoid appealable constitutional issues, the state will not go forward with certain hearings and not others because to do so could violate the equal protection clause,” District Attorney Mark Dupree wrote in a letter to the judges. “The state will not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights nor victims [sic] rights under the crime victim Bill of Rights. We cannot proceed without our internal information. As such, my attorneys will be requesting a continuance of every hearing.”

The DA’s office couldn’t be reached for comment, but Judge Burns told The Heartlander that a limited number of criminal hearings resumed last week.

Sources told The Heartlander that the DA’s office overreacted in canceling all criminal hearings, saying Dupree’s blanket policy frustrated judges and defense attorneys alike. Dupree’s letter itself implies the office could have proceeded on some cases if it wanted to, but that it chose not to.

One frustrated defense attorney, James Spies, told The Heartlander that he objected to the DA’s motion to delay a recent hearing, noting that the prosecutor had a three-ring binder of case materials sitting on the prosecution table.

“This was not a jury trial, so we didn’t have to worry about a jury,” Spies said. “We had a court reporter in the courtroom ready. And yet the district attorney’s office still sought to [delay] the case.”

Contrary to the DA’s expressed concern about equal protection issues, Spies said the DA risks due process violations – of timely prosecution – if the district attorney’s office could proceed on a case and chooses not to. It also means that defendants in jail have to wait that much longer to have their cases heard.

Another defense attorney, Dave Matthews, said the availability of criminal hearings has varied from judge to judge and prosecutor to prosecutor, making it difficult for defense attorneys to know whether a hearing will happen. He knows of a case in which both a court reporter and a Spanish interpreter were ready to proceed but the district attorney’s office was not.

“I didn’t understand it to be honest with you,” Matthews said of the DA’s blanket shutdown. When proceedings such as ready-made plea hearings are delayed, he said, “I do think that’s an overreaction.”

Matthews agreed with Spies that the DA’s decision to delay some cases that were ready to go could, in fact, present a speedy trial issue.

“I think that’s very prejudicial to the defendant,” Matthews said.

As far as the court files go, Burns said “at this point we’re still investigating to see what can be salvaged.” Asked whether all the court files had been backed up, the chief judge said, “That’s my understanding, but I haven’t received any confirmation that everything we had was backed up.”

One court official speaking on condition of anonymity said communications to the court about the cyber attack from the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas have been oddly sparing. “I guess I get some updates … but it does seem like they have totally tried to downplay this.

“Our [district court] IT people are doing what they can and they’re working with the UG IT people. But they’re just so overwhelmed, the UG people. I don’t know who their leader is over there right now.”

The UG hasn’t publicly acknowledged the full seriousness or the scope of the cyber attack, but The Heartlander has reported exclusively that it was a ransom attack in which the hackers have demanded undisclosed amounts of money.

The Heartlander also has reported that the attack came after the UG’s failure to fill a key cybersecurity position.

The Heartlander also learned the attack was reported to UG leaders three days after it allegedly occurred April 16 – but also that the UG was warned about malware in its system three months prior to that by IT officials at the Board of Public Utilities, who had detected and isolated it on their end.

Sources say the UG’s IT department, in contrast, did nothing about the warning.

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