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DA will not press charges in Sylva Zoom bomb

After a July 23 Town of Sylva meeting was cut short following a barrage of racial slurs and other offensive disruptions from some attendees, the Sylva Police Department was quick to issue a press release stating that it was investigating the incident with the goal of identifying and charging the people responsible. 

However, it now appears that no charges will be filed in the case, simply because nobody was able to identify a specific law that the Zoom bombers had violated. 

“We’ve involved everybody we could involve to try to find a way to file a charge on that, but so far we don’t have anything to work with as far as statutes go,” said Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton. 

The meeting in question was held via Zoom, and commissioners were planning to vote on a resolution to request that the county move the Confederate solider statue currently occupying the steps of the historic courthouse to a location outside of town limits. However, commissioners didn’t even make it through their reports at the top of the agenda before an account named Adira Sahar broke in with a string of disjointed sentences, making liberal use of a racial slur targeting Black people and claiming to have “25 child Black slaves” and proclaiming that “Black lives don’t matter,” among other insults, slurs and profanities. 

Two other accounts named Katy Kenz and iPhone also broke in occasionally, and though all three users were soon ejected, attendees endured another round of intimidation when an account that named itself after the town attorney began making lewd comments in the chat and a female voice under an account named Town of Sylva began saying the names of various people in attendance in a creepy, sing-song voice. Commissioners ended up adjourning the meeting and rescheduling it for a different day. 

Reconcile Sylva, a group that has been vocal in its opposition to the statue, called the incident an act of “egregious overt racism.”

“While we are proud of the outpouring of love we have received from community members, we cannot allow ourselves to pretend that this means hate is not present here in Sylva,” the group posted on Facebook Aug. 4, together with a clip from the July 23 meeting. “It is. Our community members of color experience hate regularly and it has only increased as talks of removing the statue have grown.”

Both Hatton and Assistant District Attorney Christina Matheson said that they were extremely motivated to press charges and bring the perpetrators to justice but that state laws simply do not address an incident like the one that occurred last month. While there is an applicable federal law, “the federal government is not going to get involved in every case where there’s a Zoom bomb unless it’s a serious threat,” said Matheson. 

Had the outburst occurred during a physical, in-person meeting, the protocol would be clear, said Matheson. After such an outburst, the person in question would be asked to leave. If they refused to do so, they would be charged, likely with disorderly conduct — unless the speech in question threatened somebody with bodily harm, in which case different statutes could be applied.   

However, the disorderly conduct statute requires that the incident occur in a “public place.”

“’Public place’ has never been defined as a Zoom meeting or as a meeting that may be public but is online,” said Matheson. “And our statute is not really designed to speak to that situation.”

So, she next looked to statutes dealing with computer-related crimes, but that was a dead end too. The Zoom bombers did not hack into a public computer to gain access, because the meeting and link were available to the public. They also did not physically harm or disable a government computer in any way, and they did not access a government computer for the purpose of fraud, as required by other statutes prosecutors considered. 

Finally, the content of the speech, “horrifying” as it was, did not meet the legal definition of a threat, said Hatton. 

“If you say that (n word) out loud or you call somebody that name, it feels like it should be a crime, but the truth is you can say that word and you can say it in public, and it’s not a crime,” said Hatton. 

It only becomes a crime when the speech contains threats of bodily harm. 

“There was no threat to anyone, even when taken at its worst,” said Matheson. “It was awful, and it was horrible, but the threat to harm someone just wasn’t part of it.”

Another issue at play is the fact that you can’t charge a computer. 

“You have to charge the person who was utilizing the computer,” said Matheson. “So even if you’re fortunate enough to get the computer, it’s hard to know who was on the other end.”

The investigation was not able to determine the identity of the individuals in question or even the location of the computers. Part of the issue, said Matheson, was that because the investigation could not identify a crime, it could not obtain a warrant to conduct the necessary searches to find that information. 

The incident will not result in a criminal case, but both the Town of Sylva and Jackson County have taken steps to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again. Both entities are now limiting Zoom participants, and those wishing to observe can do so by watching the meetings on YouTube, where they are livestreamed and archived. 

Matheson said the incident reveals a need for action at the state level too, in the form of updated statutes. North Carolina is not the only state where prosecutors have found the laws wanting when it comes to addressing the ins, outs and implications of moving previously in-person government meetings online. 

“I think our legislature is going to have to look at that, because I don’t believe that Zoom meetings are going to completely go away, even if the pandemic somewhat settles down. I think this is our new norm and there will be more of the Zoom meetings,” said Matheson. “I do think the legislature is going to have to look at what they can do to stop this.” 

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