The sweepstakes industry was quick to declare another win as they pushback against a state law banning sweepstakes machines.
“These games have been found to be legal,” said George Hyler, an attorney who has represented several sweepstakes operators as they have come to trial.
This week marked the fourth charge against sweepstakes operators in Haywood, Jackson or Macon counties to be dismissed, dropped or found not guilty.
The latest was Tami Nicholson, the operator of the former Winner’s Circle Sweepstakes Parlor in Waynesville. She was visibly pleased after the charges were dropped in court Monday, but was advised not to speak to the media by Hyler.
Hyler said the courts are consistently siding with his claims that a new breed of sweepstakes machines now proliferating through the region are legal because they have an element of “skill and dexterity.”
The latest ruling will likely further embolden the industry, which was already making in roads back into the gas stations across the region with its machines. Sweepstakes machines are now known to be operating in the open at least eight different gas stations in Macon, Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties, plus the towns of Sylva and Waynesville.
The arrival of more is imminent — Nicholson is among those who will likely attempt to open up sweepstakes machines somewhere soon following the dropped charges this week.
The decision to drop the charges should not be taken as a signal by the sweepstakes industry that their new style of machines are legal, according to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.
At least, not exactly.
“This is not precedent,” Bonfoey said. “I always said we look at these things on a case-by-case basis.”
Bonfoey would not say whether the new machines claiming an element of skill are illegal. But nor did he say they are legal. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey disagreed.
The four charges dropped, dismissed or found not guilty to date in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties aren’t precedent setting. They are misdemeanors, and low-level misdemeanor rulings by county judges don’t carry any weight — at least in terms of far-reaching legal interpretations of the statute.
A N.C. Supreme Court ruling shutdown sweepstakes machines in January. But it wasn’t long before they cropped back up again, claiming they’d found a loophole in the law and tailored a new style of machines that they claimed were legal.
It was the same old strategy in the decade-long war between state lawmakers and the video gambling industry. As soon as one form of video gambling was outlawed, the industry tweaked the style of games and declared the reincarnation was legal until new laws or court rulings came along to the contrary.
Law enforcement didn’t buy the sweepstakes industry claims that their new machines were legal, however. Police in Maggie Valley, Canton, Waynesville and Sylva and the sheriff’s office in Macon all arrested and charged people for operating sweepstakes machines in apparent violation of the law.
With many of the charges not sticking, where does this leave law enforcement?
“They should enforce the laws whatever the law may be,” Bonfoey said.
However, law enforcement can only press the charges and build evidence — it’s up to prosecutors to bring the cases to court.
“The district attorney has the ultimate discretion in the prosecution of these cases,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. “As far as future enforcement, the statute is still valid until we are told by the courts to no longer enforce the statute.”
But for now, the enforcement landscape is spotty. Some sheriffs and cops are letting sweepstakes operate unfettered while turning the other cheek. In other towns, police have cracked down. That is irksome to the sweepstakes operators themselves as they navigate the fluctuating discretion of law enforcement.
“They need to open it wide open or control it. I don’t care which one, I just want a level playing field — not the local sheriff saying who can play and who cannot, ” said Leonard Watson, who has sweepstakes machines in Swain and Jackson counties.
Civil suit by sweepstakes industry can’t get traction
A civil lawsuit by the sweepstakes-style video gambling industry against law enforcement in Jackson and Macon counties was dismissed this week.
The civil suit against the Sylva police chief, Highlands police chief and Macon sheriff claimed a new incarnation of the sweepstakes machines are in fact legal and should be left alone.
A ruling was signed by Judge Gary Gavenous dismissing the case late Tuesday. There was no explanation in his order for why it was dismissed.
However, the local law enforcement agencies had argued that the sweepstakes industry’s beef should be with the state, which wrote the laws, not the local cops enforcing them.
Civil suits filed against local police chiefs and sheriffs by sweepstakes companies elsewhere in the state have been successfully dismissed on the same grounds.
Many law enforcement agencies in the region were waiting and watching to see what the outcome of the civil case would be before going after sweepstakes operators that have set up shop again in recent months. They claim they are exempt from the state sweepstakes ban because they have a skill and dexterity component, although the level of “skill” the games take is questionable.