Sweepstakes: never say die
Despite a statewide ban on video sweepstakes machines, the video gambling industry is taking advantage of yet another apparent loophole to introduce the machines back into Western North Carolina, apparently emboldened after local district court judges have dismissed a series of criminal charges against defiant sweepstakes operators.
It’s been less than a year since the N.C. Supreme Court shut down the sweepstakes-style gambling, declaring them illegal under the state’s standing ban on electronic gambling machines.
Some businesses didn’t heed the order to shut down, however, so police brought criminal charges against more than half a dozen establishments in the region, including some in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Canton, Sylva and Franklin.
Some of those charges have been tossed out as they have come before local district court judges, however. Namely, cases in Waynesville, Sylva and Franklin heard by Judges Donna Forga and Monica Leslie have either been dismissed or ruled not guilty.
The latest to get off was Angela Davis Nicholson, a 43-year-old employee at Winner’s Circle on South Main Street in Waynesville. Nicholson — as with others who have gotten off — contended that the newest version of sweepstakes games require skill and dexterity, and thus the state’s ban on “games of chance” doesn’t apply.
“The whole issue of these cases revolves around whether they have a skill or dexterity component,” said George Hyler, the Asheville attorney who represented Nicholson.
Prosecutors were unable to definitively prove otherwise.
“The judge thought that the evidence was insufficient to go on. She dismissed the case,” said District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.
Hyler made the same successful argument to get sweepstakes operators off in Franklin and Sylva, with the sweepstakes manufacturers bankrolling his attorney fees.
Now, the prolonged battle between state legislators and the video gambling industry appears headed for another chapter.
However, unless there’s an official decree from the state or a higher court deeming the games legal, the Waynesville police department will continue to cite violators.
“I really think we are going to push back,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. “We have taken the position that these are not legal.”
A collective effort will be needed though, Brown said, if Haywood County hopes to be devoid of sweepstakes machines. Law enforcement agencies countywide must treat the violators similarly, he said.
Brown, along with leaders from other towns, were surprised to hear that the sweepstakes machines were creeping back into the area, however.
Canton Town Manager Al Matthews broke the news during a quarterly Council of Governments meeting Monday night, sharing a couple of recent sighting of the new-style sweepstakes machines being rolled into gas stations.
“They are trying to run what they argue is a legitimate game,” Hyler said. “So far, they have been proven right on three different occasions.”
Hyler added that Winner’s Circle owner Tami Nicholson placed stickers on her machines to denote that players must use skill or dexterity to win.
The recent court ruling in favor of Tami Nicholson’s employee at Winner’s Circle could bode well for Tami herself, who will see her own day in court on Sept. 23. Tami has been vocal about her disapproval of the state anti-video gambling laws and claims all her games contain some level of skill or dexterity. She also is being defended by Hyler.
However, fellow Haywood County sweepstakes operator James Locker was not so lucky. He was found guilty of operating illegal machines in Waynesville earlier this year by Judge Leslie. Locker appealed that ruling, however.
Other sweepstakes games have argued they are legal because they don’t give out cash prizes but instead hand out merchandise from online catalogs.