Police Wait to Enforce Court Ruling
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
Moore County law enforcement officials are in no hurry to shut down Internet sweepstakes parlors in the wake of last week's state Supreme Court ruling.
Last Friday, the N.C. Supreme Court found that the 2010 state law banning video sweepstakes games isn't too broad and doesn't interfere with free speech. The justices upheld, in part, and reversed, in part, an opinion the Court of Appeals issued in March calling the law an unconstitutional infringement.
"I am waiting for an opinion by the attorney general," said Sheriff Lane Carter, pointing out that courts have gone back and forth on the issue over several years. "These people have invested a lot of money in their businesses. They will be asking the courts for an injunction, probably today."
He referred to an anticipated federal appeal by lawyers representing the sweepstakes gaming industry, which has grown rapidly since the state outlawed video poker machines in 2007. Friday's ruling found the law banning the use of "entertaining displays" to reveal sweepstakes winnings - even if connected in no way to the chance of a win - only regulated conduct, not speech.
At these gaming parlors, self-dubbed Internet cafes, people pay to play on systems that reveal results of their sweepstakes entries. They enter the sweepstakes by buying phone cards or Internet time.
Cafe owners have said patrons can just surf the Web, or play online games. Since the games do not determine wins and losses but only communicate them, there is no direct gambling. Those business owners have compared the games to winnings revealed beneath a bottle cap and are therefore protected speech.
In Robbins, where a sweepstakes parlor has been operating for much of the year, Police Chief Jeff Sheffield took the same stance as the sheriff. He will wait to see what the attorney general advises and what may happen in some other court before telling a business in economically hard-hit Robbins it will have to shut down and fire employees. Sheffield is also town manager.
On Monday, the North Carolina Sheriff's Association said enforcement could begin on Jan 3. Carter anticipates court filings by operators before then.
"We'll see what the AG says," he said. "It is up to the district attorney. It's her call."
Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger - in a tersely worded statement referring to the cases on which the court ruled - said the high court's ruling is now the law in North Carolina and should be enforced.
"In the Hest Technologies and Sandhills Amusement cases, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the provisions of North Carolina video poker ban that includes a ban against electronic sweepstakes," she said.
"With its decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court has acknowledged that this ban is the law in our state. Any person who violates this law is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor for the offense, and is guilty of a Class H felony for the second offense, and a Class G felony for a third offense."
In her mind, there is no question the attorney general needs to resolve.
"It's the law of North Carolina now," she said in a telephone interview before releasing her formal statement. "That's the highest court in the state."
As conducted in these sweepstakes parlors, there is no connection between the chances of winning - or the amounts won - and any games being played at video terminals. They only display results, and results can be obtained without playing. Plaintiffs argued that meant what the games showed was protected speech.
In their written opinion the justices described that as an evasion. They began by quoting a 1915 decision that seemed almost prophetic in its description.
"No sooner is a lottery defined ... than ingenuity is at work to evolve some scheme of evasion which is within the mischief, but not quite within the letter of the definition," it said. "(It) is not possible to escape the law's condemnation, for it will strip the transaction of all its thin and false apparel and consider it in its very nakedness ... (inquiring ) not into the name, but into the game, however skillfully disguised ... to ascertain if it is prohibited."
That nearly century-old ruling condemns all chance play - including lotteries, which are now legal - as morally wrong.
Friday's ruling applies only to video games that are played in some connection with entering sweepstakes. Justices noted that players often never use their purchased Internet time.
"(The law) burdens only sweepstakes conducted in a manner that encourages repeated, addictive, gambling-like play through the video display; the statute does not burden or ban any video games outside this context of sweepstakes operations," the court said.
Justices found that the law in question sought to address a specific type of sweepstakes operation that was exploiting a loophole in the state's gambling laws "but presents the same social evils as gambling."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
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