Waynesville police charge two sweepstakes businesses

By DeeAnna Haney | Feb 12, 2013

Waynesville police cited two sweepstakes businesses on South Main Street who were up and running over the weekend after installing new software they believed complied with state law.

A recent court ruling upheld the state law, which made video sweepstakes illegal in December, but many sweepstakes distributors are coming out with new software that they claim is in compliance.

According to the statute, it is now illegal to operate sweepstakes through the use of an entertainment 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."

Saturday night police cited and confiscated one machine from both The Winner’s Circle and the 777 sweepstakes parlor that were running different versions of the new software.

Tami Nicholson, owner of The Winner’s Circle, recently installed new software in her machines, costing about $20,000, and opened the sweepstakes parlor Friday.

She said the software she chose, which is called Sweet Carolina, requires the player to use “skill or dexterity” in order to play, which she believes makes it legal.

“Our games do not involve chance or luck. If you do not use skill, you can play all day long and not win anything,” Nicholson said.

Despite this, she was charged with a misdemeanor for operating an illegal sweepstakes machine.

“It’s our job to take enforcement action if we see a violation. According to the law it is written these machines and these businesses were found to be in violation,” said Lt. Chris Chandler with the Waynesville Police Department.

But Nicholson she said she knows of other sweepstakes parlors that have remained open in surrounding counties using the same software.

“It’s selective enforcement and it’s wrong and it’s not legal,” she said. “They closed a legal business bringing money into Haywood County.”

To Nicholson, the law still needs clarification.

She said she repeatedly asked officers to come look at the software before she turned her open sign on to determine the legality of the machines, but she was denied.

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said it’s not law enforcement’s job to make that determination.

“We can only enforce the law as it’s interpreted by the legislature in the initial statute and the courts. It cannot come from the business owner or the business owner’s attorney. Our job is to enforce the law, not to interpret the law,” he said.

For Jo and Torry Pinter Sr. who own Vegas in the Valley in Maggie Valley, it’s just a matter of “wait and see,” before they open their doors again.

It took several months before the couple was able to open the business while awaiting approval from the town board, and they were only open three months before the ban took place.

So far, they’ve held onto their equipment in anticipation that new software will become legal, but they are frustrated with the law that no one seems to understand.

“The state attorney, officers, nobody wants to give us the OK,” Jo Pinter said.

By not informing business owners of exactly what software is legal, she said business owners are forced to open up and take the chance of being charged.

“They’re basically saying if you want to open up then do it and then we’ll take it to the courts and let the chips fall where they may,” she said.

They recently asked a Maggie Valley detective if he would come look at new software on one of their sweepstakes machines to see if it is legal before they open, but they have not heard back from him yet.

Jo Pinter said she and her husband receive dozens of calls each day from people asking if they are open yet.

“To me, it’s good entertainment for older people. They’re not sitting at a bar drinking and leaving to be driving out on the streets. To me, there are a lot more important issues in the community,” Torry Pinter Sr. said.

Nicholson believes now is the time to fight back.

“We can either sit back and do nothing and watch our businesses and our livelihoods close down or we can step up and do something,” she said.

She is working with attorneys for the software company to pursue further court action. Winner’s Circle and the Lucky Horseshoe are currently closed pending her attorneys “filing additional papers at the courthouse,” although she did not say exactly what action is being taken.

She did say that she hopes a decision will eventually be made to either allow sweepstakes or not.

“I’m not here to fight the law, I’m here to clarify the law. It’s time to figure this all out. Either shut us down or let us open,” she said.

Hollingsed said that officers will enforce whatever the law sets forth.

"The video sweepstakes games are in fact illegal and if they make a variation on some type of reveal based on skill versus chance, a court has to make the decision on whether or not that is legal, not the police officers and not the district attorney. Once that decision is made that is what we will enforce based on the case law," he said.