A court decree upheld a state ban of sweepstakes-style gambling, ordering machines to be shutdown in early January. But as the weeks ticked by, the machines kept right on humming in some places.
The indefatigable industry has shown an uncanny ability to resurrect itself in recent years, staving off past bans with various legal appeals and semantics battles.
Those on the front lines — most often gas station owners who park a few machines in the corner in exchange for a cut of the profits — clung to the belief that the latest incarnation of video gambling known as “sweepstakes” would be saved.
So they kept the lights on, urged in part by the video sweepstakes companies behind the scenes to stay the course.
“A lot of them were going on what the companies were telling them,” said Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton.
Admittedly, law enforcement were perplexed at first. Should they start writing tickets or sit on their hands? In the past, they were told not to shut down video-gambling operations due to this or that appeal in the court system or new wording on a state bill being hashed out in Raleigh.
Waynesville police were among the first to step up and ticket sweepstakes parlors continuing to operate in the town’s midst in February. Some town leaders quietly regretted the move, however, fearing the town had stumbled into a carefully laid trap by the video-gambling industry looking for a guinea pig for yet the next round of lawsuits over the legality of the state ban.
A lawsuit has yet to materialize, however, and Waynesville is no longer a lone ranger.
Buoyed by Waynesville’s police action — and unable to ignore sweepstakes operators openly floating the ban — other law enforcement agencies began to crack down as well.
In Maggie Valley, officers twice asked the Peak gas station to shutdown sweepstakes machines. But their hand was finally forced into writing a ticket. Before pressing charges, a plainclothes cop went in and played the machines until they won a cash payout.
“We sent somebody in to play them to make sure that’s what they were doing,” Sutton said.
Canton police followed suit about the same time, issuing a ticket to Langford’s Grocery.
Meanwhile in Sylva, officers conducted an undercover sting at the BP gas station across from McDonald’s and confiscated an illegal machine there. Sylva Police Chief Davis Woodard said he was emboldened in part by the arrests made in nearby Waynesville — and by complaints from the public.
“If we get complaints, they’re going to be looked into,” Woodard said. “And if they’re looked into and they’re found to be non-compliant, they’ll be charged as well.”
But Woodard suspects some sweepstakes machines are still in operation, including outside Sylva’s town limits in the jurisdiction of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
A sweepstakes parlor was allegedly still operating in Jackson County as recently as two weeks ago along U.S. 441 near Cherokee. County Planning Director Gerald Green called in a complaint to the sheriff’s office.
But the Jackson County Sheriff’s office did not return multiple calls inquiring whether action has been taken against the establishment — or any others for that matter.
The Macon County Sheriff’s Department has racked up the two busts.
The sheriff delivered letters to sweepstakes operations in early February with a final warning to shutdown. Weeks later, two were still going strong and now have misdemeanors to show for it. One of the busts targeted a large-scale sweepstakes parlor named Pots Of Gold, the other was for Dowdle Mountain Pit Stop gas station.
In most sweepstakes busts, the hapless cashier working the register ended up with the ticket, since they were the ones who made the cash payout to the undercover cop.
“The person that was operating the cash register gets the citation,” explained Brian Welch, attorney for Macon Sheriff’s Office.
“They were in control of the store at that time,” Sutton added.
Sutton said the police department has a duty to act. But like most cops, he’s not exactly a huge fan of the machines.
“A lot of people who play them it is not in their financial best interest to be doing that,” Sutton said.
Reporters Andrew Kasper and Caitlin Bowling contributed to this story.