Monday update: The Atlanta Municipal Court is back in the 21st Century after almost three months stuck in a world that processed cases via paper rather than computer.
A court spokeswoman said Monday that drivers with a traffic ticket carrying a court date of June 11 or after can once again pay their fines online, except for those charged with offenses that require an appearance before a judge. Those that must appear before a judge including anyone with a moving violation that involved an accident or injury, or charges involving documents like proof of insurance.
The Atlanta Municipal Court has been one of the last city agencies to recover from a cyber attack that shut down the city’s computer system on March 22.
The Atlanta Municipal Court, considered the busiest court in the Southeast, remains crippled by a ransomware attack on the city of Atlanta's computer system first revealed more than 11 weeks ago.
The bustling court that handles thousands of cases each day has relied on paper records and postponed an unknown number of cases since Atlanta officials announced that hackers were holding much of the city’s computer network hostage.
Court officials say that its damaged technology will be restored Monday, and that it will begin to work through the backlog.
But will it start working again?
“I’ve never seen anything like this, not on this scale,” said attorney Gerald Griggs, who has clients waiting for drunken driving and traffic cases to be rescheduled. “You’re talking about the busiest court in the Southeast. I don’t know how its going to be fine.”
Citizens trying to resolve traffic tickets have felt the pain most. The court has been unable to process ticket payments in person or online before the court date noted on their citations.
Calls have flooded the court's offices with people asking simple questions that no one will answer: How much is their ticket? When can they pay their fines?
“I’m trying to be a good citizen and pay my ticket. It’s been terrible. It’s been hanging over my head since April 6,” said Judy Headrick, who was cited for a seat belt violation, which has a $15 fine. “They don’t tell you anything. They just … say ‘Why do you care? You’re not going to be penalized.’ I don’t know I won’t be penalized.”
Walking through the Municipal Court’s lobby last week, computerized monitors that once displayed court cases and their assigned courtrooms were blank. Instead, the information desk held clipboards with forms for requesting a new court date or to update addresses where important information should be sent – work typically done on computers.
Judges are again presiding in courtrooms — hearing misdemeanor offenses along with traffic, city ordinance and code violations — but records are being kept on paper. The court — which processes 250,000 cases a year, and an average of 4,800 a week — has processed about 11,000 cases on paper since the hacking, according to court spokeswoman Tialer Maxwell.
The city has yet to say if it paid the ransom but it hired Secureworks, a Dell subsidiary, who has emerged as an early authority on the cyber-criminal group, “Gold Lowell.” That group is being blamed for a rash of cyber attacks involving a variant of SamSam, the type of ransomware that struck Atlanta.
The Municipal Court has so far restored only records of traffic cases that were in the system the night before the attack. Chief Judge Christopher Portis said the so-called "jail cases" — people charged with misdemeanor and city ordinance violations — were not affected as extensively as traffic cases. Traffic tickets account for the bulk of the court's work and are the reasons most citizens travel to the court on the southern end of downtown.
When the system is up, Portis said, the court will begin catching up on backlogged cases, including some put on hold 10 weeks ago.
“We won’t have a definitive number of (backlogged) cases until the system comes up,” he said, adding that there was no way to predict how long that will take. He also had no estimate on the cost of the delays and the paper workarounds.
The court’s website promises “cases that were scheduled to be heard between March 22 and April 16 were rescheduled and postcards will be mailed soon with a new date. Please ensure your address is updated.”
Portis said the hope is people will read the postcards before discarding them as junk mail.
“I’m an IT guy,” said Christian Krautwald, who tried several times without luck to reach court staff by phone to ask how he could pay his ticket for running a stop sign in Midtown. “They are back in the stone ages.”
Eventually, Krautwald took time off work so he could drive to the court for answers. He was told to wait for the postcard that will give him a date to go before a judge. The original court date on his citation was Memorial Day.
In other news:
“In a real world situation where a website goes down, companies scramble to resolve the issue to deliver to their customers,” Krautwald wrote on the Municipal Court’s Facebook page. “We are that customer and the city of Atlanta is not delivering on their promises to serve the community. This is absurd that we have to go through this entire process because someone within your management decided to spend more money on building a baseball stadium than investing into your online infrastructure and preventative methods from being hacked. You should drop all fines issued between this period and start over.”
Tonya Holbert Johnson, a respiratory therapist, has the same frustration.
She called the court many times to ask about paying a speeding ticket from April 20 before she finally connected with a person. Johnson said she was told there was nothing she could do before her June 26 court date.
“I’m not disputing the ticket,” Johnson said. “It’s about to worry me to death but I don’t know what else to do…. I just want take care of it and be done with it.”