Experts look at gaming

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Expert consultants will be utilized to help determine if electronic gaming devices in Troy are illegal under the state's gambling prohibition.

Two separate groups will be looking into the adult arcades in operation in the city - one to determine which machines types are illegal; the other to conduct a sales tax audit of the businesses, said City Clerk Alton Starling.

Starling said the Council wanted any illegal gaming to cease "if they were determined to be illegal, but we don't have the determination yet."

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"That's why we're gong to hire some experts to look at the machines," Starling said.

Those consultants can verify compliance with the guidelines established under the Attorney General's Opinion issued March 2, 2002 that offers some clarification to the allowable and illegal game types in the state, plus any case law.

Last week's action by the Troy City Council to put an end to video gaming machines brings to the forefront a "gray area" in Alabama's gaming laws.

State law prohibits gambling and gaming devices, including video versions of casino games, such as video poker.

The rub, officials and arcade operators say, is that the legal definitions don't include the types of games being offered to the public in adult arcades.

"According to an Attorney General's Opinion, they're illegal and until that's proven otherwise, that's where we're going to stand on it," said Jason Reeves, who represents District 3 on the council.

"Sometimes if you wait on the court, you wait forever and we decided to take action," he said.

Currently pending before the Alabama Supreme Court is a case that would address the machine types in question. An appeals court ruled earlier that such games as operated in Troy are illegal.

"The Legislature didn't say our machines were illegal," said Charles Milam, owner of Wild Bill's Arcade on North Three Notch Street.

In what are essentially video slot machines, players in Milam's establishment can stop the roll of their games themselves, or allow the machines to "roll out" on their own, Milam said.

Section 65 of the Alabama Constitution makes games of chance, or lotteries, illegal, so the question of the legality is whether or not the altered games are games of chance, or rather a game of skill, which is allowable under the law.

Payouts on the machines are usually in the form of gift certificates with a value of $5 or less - also permissible under Alabama law. Additionally, any game that requires a federal tax sticker is prohibited in Alabama because it is a gaming device.

Troy Police Chief Anthony Everage said checking compliance with the state's gaming laws with adult arcades is not a new issue.

"We started looking at these establishments a year ago with the city and the district attorney," he said. "But we've been waiting (on enforcement) for a ruling from a court case."

The city council stepped up that enforcement action last week, and had the police department deliver letters stating that adult arcade operators had 30 days to come into compliance on any illegal machines, or face seizure of those machines.

There are three adult arcades that are currently licensed for business in Troy, said City Clerk Alton Starling.

Winner's World, Park Place and Wild Bills. The city issued business permits to those arcades with the stipulation that any illegal gaming devices could not be operated.

"Prior to issuance (of the first permit), we contacted the League of Municipalities because of the controversy over these types of games, and they made the recommendation to discuss the matter with the district attorney," he said.

The League of Municipalities is an organization that provides services to the state's cities - among them legal services.

If the district attorney wouldn't prosecute for illegal gaming devices, then the league lawyers recommended the city issue to the business permits until a legal definition was established that clarified the game types.

One court case is currently on appeal to the state supreme court, but the appellate court ruled that the games such as the ones in Milam's establishment are illegal.

"I hope they don't close this place," said Jimmy Harris, who manages Wild Bill's.

"We're providing entertainment for our customers."

One such customer is Pearl Crawley, who said she was Wild Bill's "first customer."

"I play to kill time, and I like (to play)," she said from her seat in front of one of the machines.

Crawley said she frequented the arcade about three days a week.

"Sometimes I walk out with $300 or $400, but you spend more than you win," she said.

For the city council, however, the issue isn't over the operation of adult arcades, it's about specific machines being legal.