By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
A judge’s ruling that calls into question one part of one sentence of the state’s new law banning video sweepstakes won’t keep local or state law enforcement agencies from pulling the plug on violators. An advisory letter released Thursday from Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office said agencies should not hesitate to enforce all but the one provision which a Guilford County judge said violates the First Amendment. The Attorney General is also in the process of appealing the ruling.
Passed in July, the ban on video poker, video sweepstakes and virtually any electronic game that mimics gambling, went into effect Wednesday. But law enforcement officials had requested clarification following recent rulings on sweepstakes related cases from two superior court judges. One ruling upholds the ban and another declares it constitutionally sound in all but one subpart. In Guilford County, Judge John O. Craig dismissed a claim by Hest Technologies Inc. and International Internet Technologies that the phrase “entertaining display” in the ban is overly broad and is therefore a violation of the First Amendment with the exception of the part of the ban that outlaws “any other video game not dependent on skill or dexterity that is played while revealing a prize as the result of an entry into a sweepstakes.” According to the judge, that particular subpart “constitutes a prior restraint on free expression.”
However, his ruling upheld the state’s right to enforce the ban against “a video poker game or any other kind of video playing card game, a video bingo game, a video craps game, a video keno game, a video lotto game, Eight-liner, Pot-of-gold” as well as “video games based on or involving the random or chance matching of different pictures, words, numbers, or symbols not dependent on the skill or dexterity of the player.”
In a separate ruling, Judge Paul Ridgeway of Wake County Superior Court dismissed the claims of Sandhill Amusements against the state and lifted an injunction that had prevented law enforcement agencies from seizing video sweepstakes machines per the 2008 law that closed loopholes in the earlier 2007 ban. The injunction had paved the way for the opening of hundreds of gaming parlors across the state over the past two years giving the gambling industry more of a foothold and leading to two proposed bills that would have had the state legalizing, taxing and promoting the games.
“Fortunately lawmakers were not swayed by these promises of revenue and instead passed the ban,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “We’re glad to see some of these businesses already shut their doors and hope to see the rest closed down quickly as enforcement begins.”
While some sweepstakes game owners have remained open, trying to comply with the law by changing their terminals to display arcade style rather than casino-like games, others are flouting the law altogether. And gambling promoter Chase Brooks vowed that the industry may be “down for a few days,” but “it will survive.”
“It is the brazen disregard for the law of this State and the intent of the General Assembly that continues to astound me,” said Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Haywood), a longtime supporter of the ban. “The Legislature has spoken decisively on the need to ban video gambling in all of its forms but we continue to have to play ‘gotcha games’ with this highly exploitative business.”
Prior to the release of the Attorney General’s Office advisory, Brooks, who heads the North Carolina Internet Based Sweepstakes Organization, called the legal climate “an extremely muddied situation at the moment.”
But Rapp and others say the law is crystal clear.
“The gaming industry needs to read the clearly written, straightforward language in the legislation,” he said. “We want this predatory gambling stopped, no ifs, ands or buts about it, and we have written the law to make this clear and concise.”
Even before the Attorney General’s advisory, Allen Page, deputy director for operations with the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement Division (ALE), said the sweepstakes ban would be enforced, but that North Carolina residents should not expect to see large scale raids as they did when video poker was initially banned three years ago.
“For our part, there will not be a massive pickup of these machines, but we are going to enforce the ban one way or another even if they’ve struck down that one subpart,” Page said, describing the ALE approach as “very clandestine.”
He said the best scenario would be if “people realize we’re coming for them and go ahead and move the machines out.”
“It is time for this industry to get the message: North Carolina wants video gambling banned,” he said. “We stand ready to enact further legislation if it is necessary so we can stop playing ‘whack-a-mole’ with the gambling interests intent on thwarting the will of the people of this state.”