Last updated: June 01. 2013 12:49PM - 298 Views
David Broyles
Civitas News Service

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DOBSON — Local law enforcement officials have met with District Attorney Ricky Bowman, who will draft a uniform policy of enforcement of video sweepstakes halls in the 17B Judicial District. This could arrive as early as next week.

Many law enforcement agencies across the state on Thursday planned to start enforcing a state Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on video sweepstakes machines. But operators said they’ll respond by changing the machines in ways that escape the ban and keep attracting players without much delay.

“We are performing upgrade of games according to the statute of NC,” a sign on the Raleigh shop called Jackpot Sweepstakes informed customers. The shop closed late Wednesday and promised to reopen yesterday.

Previously, local law enforcement and video sweepstakes hall owners appeared to take a wait-and-see attitude until the attorney general’s office issued some guidelines in the wake of recent state supreme court action upholding a state law declaring such businesses as gambling operations.

“Law enforcement officials from throughout the district have met with the district attorney,” said Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson. “We have shared our views with him and his office could issue guidelines on enforcement. We did this because we want to be consistent throughout Judicial District 17B.”

In late December, the Associated Press reported the North Carolina Supreme Court had ruled against a request by the industry to delay enforcement of the law while the businesses appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The request for the delay asked that the law not be enforced until learning if the U.S. Supreme Court would consider its claim of free speech protections. Last year, the court ruled video games, like books and films, are protected by the First Amendment.

At that time, Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson explained any enforcement operations would be run in cooperation with the state division of alcohol enforcement. Watson and many other officials in late December voiced the opinion the attorney general’s directions would determine the appropriate ways to respond to the legislation.

Sweepstakes halls have cropped up because of what state Supreme Court justices called a loophole since the state outlawed video poker machines in 2007.

Watson explained sweepstakes parlor or hall patrons buy Internet or phone time which gives them an opportunity to uncover potential cash and prizes with mouse clicks on a computer screen.

According to AP reports, thousands of sweepstakes hall employees may lose their jobs as the industry fights for its future in court, industry spokesmen said. The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected the industry’s request to block state enforcement while businesses appealed to the country’s highest court, a step expected by mid-March.

“Probably 90 percent of the operators will close down voluntarily,” said Brad Crone, a spokesman for the Internet Based Sweepstakes Operators. “Some operators may be looking at new software and new gaming options that will more than likely have to be tested in a series of new court cases.”

Gov.-elect Pat McCrory said Thursday the ban will be revisited somehow “because of all the legal maneuvering and interpretations” by the industry. McCrory said he also would speak with legislative leaders soon about the issue.

Greg Oneal, manager of Shatter’s Cafe in Mount Airy, was typical of the local business owners still waiting on the possible impact of the legislation.

“It’s going to put a large number of people out of work,” predicted Oneal. “We pay taxes just like any other business and I cannot understand the loss of revenue on the part of the state whether you love us or hate us. My feeling is tax us and make it legal, let our revenue go to help local schools. I’m betting a larger share of that will benefit our schools than what comes from the state lottery.”

Recent action caps a virtual decade of legislative efforts trying to eliminate video gaming machines and sweepstakes. A bipartisan effort failed this summer on regulation allowing state access privilege taxes on the sweepstakes establishments and terminals, although some cities have taxing authority on the businesses.

Reach David Broyles at dbroyles@heartlandpublications.com or719-1952.

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