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2 YEARS

TMZ Sued for Placing Hidden Microphones in a Courtroom

UPDATED: At a hearing to determine the fate of a man accused of extorting Stevie Wonder, the judge says he didn't realize he was being recorded.

Stevie Wonder at Obama Rally - H 2012
Getty Images
Steve Wonder

Just where will TMZ go next?

Earlier this year, the celebrity tabloid was rumored to be exploring licensing a drone to stalk celebrities from the air. TMZ denied it, but maybe people should be looking down rather than up.

According to a new lawsuit filed in California federal court, TMZ allegedly has been placing hidden microphones in courtrooms and recording conversations between court officers involved in matters of tabloid interest.

The lawsuit comes from a man named Alpha Walker, who on May 16, 2012, was brought into a Los Angeles Superior Court hearing and accused of attempting to extort the singer Stevie Wonder. During the proceedings, Walker's attorneys objected to the presence of media in the courtroom, and then the discussion evolved to the illicit microphones that were placed on the judge's bench and behind books on both sides of counsel table.

According to the complaint, which asks for a permanent injunction, "It was then learned that these privileged communications were instantaneously transferred to the headquarters of TMZ Enterprises."

The case is murky because the judge in the matter, Ray Jurado, had allowed the recording to occur, and the court's staff apparently was involved in the placement of the microphones.

Still, the judge said he was dismayed to find a microphone on his bench.

"I would like to state for the record that I was not aware of this microphone," Jurado stated in court. "Had I been aware, I would have made sure that it was either removed from the bench when we have sidebar conference or turned off or both. This will not happen again."

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The judge then addressed the media in the courtroom, saying that if the media couldn't hear what was being said, the court had its own microphones. He then held off-the-record conversations with the attorneys and announced, "The Court's just been made aware that there was unbeknownst to counsel and the court a microphone placed at counsel table."

Frances Young, the deputy district attorney, then demanded that the court confiscate the equipment and investigate other recording devices.

"It would be evidence of a crime," said Young. "I realize it's an unusual request, but I also, in 16 years, have never -- and I've done many media cases -- never had a media organization surreptitiously record a bench officer, a DA and two defense attorneys."

The court asked the representative of the media to state his name for the record. The respondent said he was Christopher Manivong, who is listed on LinkedIn as live stream coordinator at EHM Productions, which operates TMZ. Manivong denied broadcasting out anything that wasn't on record, but the court officers weren't entirely convinced.

Jurado and the attorneys then reviewed the recordings. Afterward, the judge stated that no "discernible voices" were heard on sidebar conferences and private discussions between counsel. The judge said there was nothing problematic about the recording and approved its use by the media.

But that didn't end the matter.

After the hearing, Walker's attorney Ian Wallach spoke on the phone to Elisabeth Neubauer, a senior counsel at EHM, and thought that he had reached an agreement whereby TMZ would destroy footage. But there appears to have been no agreement. According to a letter sent by Neubauer to Wallach attached to the lawsuit, "I made no promises during our conversation, and frankly I am appalled that you would go to such lengths to put words into my mouth. That said, please know that TMZ will act consistent with its legal obligations."

Now comes the lawsuit where it is alleged that the microphones and camera equipment couldn't indicate to court officers whether there was recording happening and didn't have a mechanism to stop power when the proceedings were off record. 

The complaint also says: "Prior to TMZ's motion to be present was considered by the Court, Plaintiff was erroneously brought out of 'lock-up' by the Courtroom Deputy, but then quickly returned. It would later be learned -- when the tape was viewed by all counsel and the Judge in chambers -- that Plaintiff had been filmed against the wall, with a close frame-up of his head, while in handcuffs, and that this footage had been immediately transmitted to TMZ's headquarters."

(According to court records, a media request by TMZ, ABC, CBS and other outlets to allow recording was granted May 15, the day before the hearing.)

Walker's lawsuit also states that although the judge didn't find anything of troubling substance on the tapes, he didn't address whether the recordings "could be enhanced to render [them] audible."

Walker says that as a result of TMZ's conduct, he has experienced "tremendous fear and distrust of the judicial system" and is suing for wiretapping, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and eavesdropping on confidential communication. He's seeking $100,000 in actual damages and more in punitive damages.

The complaint also asserts that TMZ's "conduct is ongoing" and violates attorney-client privilege. Asking for a permanent injunction over TMZ's alleged conduct, the plaintiff says "its threat to the public interest is tremendous. No matter who the alleged victim in a case is, there can be no lawful justification."

TMZ is a division of Warner Bros. A spokesperson for the company says it has no comment.

It's unclear how the microphones were placed in the courtroom without court officials knowing, especially if court personnel participated in placing them. The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to the Los Angeles Superior Court's media department for comment, and we'll provide any information we learn.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner