Police targeted by sweepstakes industry suits
For law enforcement, video gambling is like a bad case of poison ivy that keeps cropping back up all over the place, and now, it’s going after them.
Law enforcement officials have cited at least eight people in Haywood, Macon and Jackson counties for running illegal video gambling operations, and numerous other cases all around the state are still trickling through the legal system.
Now, law enforcement agencies have found themselves in court as well. The Georgia-based company Gift Surplus filed a lawsuit in May against the Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, the Sylva Police Department and the Highlands Police Department.
The company asked for an injunction, which would have prevented law enforcement from enforcing the ban on sweepstakes machines. However, a judge denied Gift Surplus’ request on June 6.
Although the company lost that battle, it could still choose to proceed with a legal challenge against law enforcement’s ability to uphold the law. In the judge’s ruling, however, he indicated that Gift Surplus would not likely win a trial based on its current arguments.
“The judge doesn’t think it’s going anywhere. But that is just the first part of the process,” said Brian Welch, attorney for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office.
Just because Gift Surplus was denied an injunction in Macon County doesn’t mean another judge in a different county won’t rule differently. There has been at least one other similar suit filed in Lee County earlier this year. The judge in that case also ruled against the sweepstakes companies involved.
The goal of the lawsuits is to find a judge who will find in favor of the sweepstakes operations and allow them to function without police interference.
District Attorney Mike Bonfoey pointed out that the N.C. Supreme Court has already ruled against sweepstakes once before. He has advised police and deputies to continue to uphold the statute and to use all their investigative tools to build a case against those committing crimes.
“We are not encouraging or pushing (them to cite sweepstakes operations). We are just advising law enforcement to do what their job is,” Bonfoey said.
A lack of consistency
Back in early January, a ban on all forms of video sweepstakes went into effect following the N.C. Supreme Court ruling. However, some sweepstakes parlors stayed open.
Sheriff’s deputies and police officers have worked together in stings to catch people breaking the law.
But when the cases reach court, the outcomes have varied. Unlike other crimes such as illicit drug dealing, being caught in the act by an officer does not necessarily mean a judge will find an individual guilty. Sweepstakes operator, James Locker of Haywood County was found guilty, but Mark Berry of Macon County was not.
“It seems like there is no consistency, and there needs to be,” said Sylva Police Chief Davis Woodard.
Law enforcement agencies have always been caught in the middle of the back-and-forth between the N.C. General Assembly and the video gambling industry. No matter how many times the state legislators outlaw versions of the video sweepstakes, the gambling industry comes up with new games aimed at skirting the law, creating a quandary for police. Determining what is illegal and what is not has been a moving target for law enforcement.
Individual sweepstakes parlor owners have argued one of two positions when brought before a judge. Some have argued that the software used in their video gambling machines requires skill or dexterity, making them legal. But who has the authority to make that judgment?
Law enforcement officials don’t, so some continue to cite anyone running a sweepstakes parlor and let judges and lawyers work out whether the person is guilty or not.
“If (state legislators) are going to make the law, we are going to enforce it,” Woodard said. “If (the district attorney’s office) say they are not going to prosecute, then that is their choice.”
At least one person, Berry, a convenience store owner in Macon County, has successfully argued that his machines require some level of skill or dexterity.
Other video gambling operators claim their machines are not illegal because they hand out prizes, not cash. When someone is done playing, a receipt prints out with his or her winnings, which may be redeemed online for a prize, similar to children’s arcade games that spit out tickets.