The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

January 10, 2013

Agencies prepare to enforce law on video sweepstakes establishments

By Justin Jones, Staff Writer

Thursday, January 10, 2013 — In the days following the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision to ban video sweepstakes machines, many of those parlors remained open even after the ruling went into effect Jan. 3.

But within a week, those parlors that have remained in operation will be subject to the ruling through enforcement by both Albemarle Police Department and Stanly County Sheriff’s Office.

At the Albemarle City Council meeting Monday,  Police Chief William Halliburton and Assistant City Manager Michael Ferris presented to the council information on how other cities are continuing to operate after the ruling and in regards to enforcement.

Halliburton said he had contacted District Attorney Reece Saunders, who said he would support local law enforcement through the courts.

Halliburton recommended that council allow the video sweepstakes parlors to remain in operation through next Wednesday, Jan. 16. He recommended that date after saying he would send a formal letter to all known parlors within the city by today (Thursday), giving them a five-business-day notice of the city’s plan to enforce the ruling.

But throughout the county, that warning has already been issued.

“I have sent an officer by all of the places that we know of, and we’ve taken them a copy of the statute and they have been advised that by Friday, lunchtime, the machines need to be gone, the doors need to be locked,” Sheriff Rick Burris said.

“And anybody that is there, if it’s still in operation, will be charged with operating the business. We will confiscate the machine, and whoever owns the machine will be charged with possession.”

Burris said he had waited several days after the ruling went into effect to see if any judge might place a restraint, or stay, but after no action, he said it was time to enforce the statute as given.

“We’re giving them more time than the statute allows,” he said.

“If we drag our feet and the people from these other counties, which most have already closed all their businesses down, if they see that Stanly County is allowing them to operate, those folks are going to move across the river and we’re going to have a mess.”  

It’s been no secret that video sweepstakes owners plan to return to operation with similar machines that they feel may be difficult to prosecute even under the state’s Supreme Court definition.

Chuck Nance, an operator of at least three sweepstakes parlors within Albemarle,  confirmed that idea to city council, but had his own request of how to stay in operation until those machines arrive.

“There’s been determinations on what is considered legal and what has not been considered illegal. All these things are basically gray areas,” he said.

“This reveal aspect that some places are considering to go to, we have that option also. They haven’t been deemed legal at this time either and they haven’t been deemed illegal. There’s been no judge to make a ruling saying, ‘yes, that is a legal process.’

“It’s a gray area and we don’t know how to operate.”

The gray area, which is the reveal aspect that Nance referenced, is centered on a pre-reveal system that moves away from the basis of an entertainment display as the means of conducting the sweepstakes.

That technology, which may be used in some forms in other areas, was mentioned in a letter by Roanoke Rapids City Attorney Gilbert Chichester to District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey. The city of Roanoke Rapids has been placed in a unique situation because their city-owned building, which is a converted theatre, has been housing video poker machines and has become a “Godsend,” due to the amount of revenues and jobs created, Mayor Emery Doughtie told WRAL in Raleigh.  

Locally, similar tactics on any changes may not be received by law enforcement.

Both Burris and Halliburton share similar definitions, narrow in tolerance.

“You’re going to have some of these manufactures to circumvent the law. They’re going to say they’ve got (computer) chips that can legalize these things. But if it’s a free standing machine and it’s got a screen and you’ve got to pay money and you can win a prize, it’s illegal,” Burris said.

“The way I interpret, there’s no question in my mind. If it’s a free standing machine, with a screen, it’s illegal.”

“We’ve seen it in the past, where someone will interpret the statute and then try to find a way around it,” Halliburton said to Albemarle’s City Council.

“And in my opinion that’s just another attempt to get around the spirit of the law.”

But with the new technology not yet in the area, Halliburton said before city police enforce the statute, they will consult with Saunders.

“The DA said before we make any charges, wait for his council. And that’s what we’ll do,” Halliburton said.

To help prepare for those changes, Halliburton said the department had plans in place to send an officer to Rockingham for training with a member of their police department who had more extensive training than anyone locally.

In conversations with owners and operators of those establishments, Halliburton said their feedback has been one of compliance, as Nance echoed before council to cooperate with officers.

While Nance said he would abide by the law, he did request the city push back its time for enforcement until the Supreme  Court decides if it would hear an appeal.

Members of city council denied Nance’s notion of delaying enforcement, as the court’s ruling was enough authority to formulate a decision.

“In my opinion, if it has been ruled on. It’s been ruled that it’s illegal, and the Supreme Court refused to issue a stay, so that’s telling law enforcement to go ahead and do their enforcement.” Councilman Ronnie Michael said.

“My thoughts are if we tell you you’re allowed to operate, we’re telling you, you can break the law.”

Nance also tried to formulate his position because of the possibility that the city may refund owners portions of their business license fee, which would take away money that the city had allotted to have. It is not mandatory that the city refund those licenses that would expire on June 30, 2013, but it seemed that council was open to the possibility.

With no extension granted by the city, and the sheriff’s office set to enforce by noon Friday, for video sweepstakes parlors to re-open in Stanly County it will take another stay or ruling in a courtroom. Until then, authorities expect owners to abide the law.

“It would have made sense for me to regulate it and have revenue coming in and it probably would have saved some jobs and maybe created some jobs,” Burris said.

“But we’re the enforcers of the law, we don’t make the law. So we’re only going to do what we’ve got to do.”