Police begin enforcement of video sweepstakes ban

By DeeAnna Haney and Stina Sieg | Jan 04, 2013
Photo by: DeeAnna Haney

The game is over for those who frequent video sweepstakes establishments in Haywood County, for now at least.

Law enforcement officers across the county made their rounds Thursday to enforce a recent statewide ban on video sweepstakes machines.

Enforcement of the law is based on the discretion of agencies across the state, but each agency in Haywood County has a unified enforcement plan.

Yesterday, detectives gave each store owner final notice of the law. But from now on, those operating the machines will be charged criminally.

Tami Nicholson, who manages two sweepstakes establishments in Haywood County and one in Cherokee, says the court ruling against the machines is hurting the entire state, starting with the 15,000 employees who lost their jobs yesterday.

“This hurts Haywood County. It hurts the state as a whole. It hurts the four single moms that I had to tell a week before Christmas that there was a good chance they wouldn’t have a job within 20 days. Now that’s a hard pill to swallow,” Nicholson said.

She said she would make sure to stay in compliance with local law enforcement and close her doors at the Lucky Horseshoe in Jonathan Creek and the Winner’s Circle in Waynesville. However, she’s frustrated with the law that she says needs clarification.

According to the statute, it is now illegal to operate an “electronic machine or device” to “conduct a sweepstakes through the use of an entertaining display.”

That includes video poker, bingo or "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."

Earlier this month she pulled the plug on 13 “Pot of Gold” machines at the Lucky Horseshoe, but the remaining 31 games allow the player interaction that Nicholson says could be defined as skill or dexterity.

In her interpretation of the law, she believes those games should be considered legal. But she is going to leave it up to law enforcement to make that decision.

“They keep making these broad rulings, and we’re still left in limbo. Who gets to determine the skill and dexterity of each player?” she said.

But Det. Brian Reeves with the Waynesville Police Department said that police across the county have been told to shut down any video sweepstakes machine offering cash prizes.

“It all goes back to the original statute that says anything that’s a game of chance and has a payout, it’s gambling,” he said.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey agreed, saying any electronic machine that reveals a winner is now illegal.

“Anyone can conduct a sweepstakes and video games independently, but you can’t combine the two. The combination of video games and sweepstakes, that’s what makes it illegal,” Bonfoey said.

Despite the confusion among storeowners, detectives from each agency paid visits to every store with the machines Thursday notifying them to unplug the machines and turn them around.

Some stores, such as the Time Out Market beside Walmart, already had their machines sent back to the company.

For Torry Pinter Sr., who owns Maggie Valley's only sweepstakes hall with his wife, Jo, the future is unclear.

As of Wednesday night, all he knew for certain was that he was shutting the doors to Vegas in the Valley a bit before midnight. Whether he'll be able to open them again is anybody's guess, though Pinter will if he's able.

He explained that he's not making moves or selling any equipment until he finds out more. If he can find a new type of machine that is legal, he'd definitely invest in it, he stressed.

"I'm just holding tight until we hear further from the state," he said, adding, "Nobody knows what's really going on. We just have to wait and see."

While Pinter certainly began his business for profit — he has called it a way to help pay his property tax — he explained that he's not most worried for the financial fallout on his and his wife's end. He's more concerned with his four employees who are now out of a job, he said. He knows thousands of others across the state are in the same boat, all holding their breath to see what's possible with this always-volitile industry.

As Pinter put it, "Hopefully the night won't be our last night for long,"

Others, such as the truck stop on Old Crabtree Road, already have new machines in place that the company claims are in compliance with the new law. Whether authorities agree remains to be seen.

Now that storeowners have received warning from police, if they are caught operating sweepstakes machines they can now be charged with a misdemeanor. Subsequent violations are felonies.

Reeves said he’s heard other companies have already come up with a new system which involves the store clerk revealing the winner rather than the video game, making it legal.

But as of right now, most stores locally only have the old sweepstakes machines.

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said that so far, no one has caused any trouble.

"Everyone we’ve talked to has said they will abide by law and make the machines non operational," he said, adding that most store owners knew when they opened there was a chance they would eventually have to close.

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