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Farris Garrison plays video machines at E & P Produce in the Neel community Tuesday night. An Alabama Supreme Court ruling against the video sweepstakes games at a Birmingham dog track likely will force the closure of many smaller gambling halls that have copied the track's success, state's attorneys said.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Farris Garrison plays video machines at E & P Produce in the Neel community Tuesday night. An Alabama Supreme Court ruling against the video sweepstakes games at a Birmingham dog track likely will force the closure of many smaller gambling halls that have copied the track's success, state's attorneys said.

Higher stakes worth the gamble?
Ruling on Birmingham dog track may result in closing of smaller gambling halls

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

Between cheers over watermelons lining up, patrons of video sweepstakes parlors on Tuesday also murmured concerns over eight state Supreme Court justices lining up against their pastime.

The ruling against video sweepstakes machines at a Birmingham dog track could put the kibosh on similar gaming operations across the state.

Morgan County District Attorney Bob Burrell said he plans to discuss the Supreme Court ruling today with law enforcement officials during a monthly meeting.

Burrell noted that the ruling is not final as the losing side has 14 days to file for re-hearing of the case.

Many vendors in Decatur already played it safe and cashed out, removing the machines from store premises following an Aug. 2 warning from city prosecutor Wayne Alexander Jr. He gave proprietors 30 days to remove the machines or face fines, seizures and possible jail time.

Opponents of video sweepstakes, which have become common in convenience stores and other establishments, say the games are simply slot machines that feed and foster gambling habits, often in those who can't afford to lose money.

Proponents say the games are a legitimate sweepstakes.

Southeastern Phone Time Vending operates many of the machines found in Decatur and surrounding areas.

For each dollar inserted, the machine automatically prints a receipt including a personal identification number good for four minutes of phone time.

The user receives credits for use in a video game similar to a slot machine or poker game, offering the opportunity to win more credits.

Those points can be redeemed for cash or prizes, the value being dependent on the number of points accumulated.

Phillip Watson, who co-owns E&P Produce on Neel School Road in the Neel Community, compared video sweepstakes to sweepstakes included with fries or drink at a fast-food restaurant.

E&P, which has been open about two months, has 20 Phone Time machines in addition to a produce business.

Customers make a legitimate purchase — phone time — when they put money into the machines. The chance to win cash is a bonus, Watson said.

"If you were just putting your money in there and not getting anything for your money, then I could see (it being illegal)," he said.

Watson showed payoff tickets for various amounts won by patrons Tuesday. The highest was $70. Watson estimated that about 80 percent of a day's haul goes back into customers' pockets.

He also presented a promotional game play voucher to back up Phone Time's assertion that no purchase is necessary to win.

Watson didn't go as far as to say that customers actually play the games to get phone time. Many players discard the receipts, and Watson keeps a bag hanging on the wall to save them for a handicapped relative of one of his patrons.

Employees and owners at other sweepstakes locations declined to talk on record for fear of drawing undue attention to the machines that supplement convenience store earnings.

One woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that she does not advertise her Phone Time machines and keeps them out of plain view in her store, so as to neither offend those who object to gambling nor draw in customers other than those who come looking to play.

Watson and his partner, Elgin Dutton, were more vocal, as a sudden crackdown on video sweepstakes could put them out of business.

"We're just now about even for what it cost us to rent this place and buy all this stuff to go in here. Eventually, we hope to make a profit, but right now, we're just about even. ... If they shut us down right now, we'll go in the hole," Watson said.

Watson said he runs a clean operation, with strict rules to keep out alcohol, drugs, profanity and minors. Many of his patrons are retirees, he said.

Furthermore, part of every dollar that goes into the machines goes back into the community in the form of sales tax, he said.

Watson said he doesn't believe he's ever seen anyone develop a gambling problem from playing video sweepstakes.

Betty Ray, 62, of Danville said she plays the machines at E&P regularly.

"It really doesn't cost much to play. You can play as little as eight pennies at a time. I like playing the machines, and it's a chance to get out of the house and socialize. It's close to home and you know everyone, so it's safe up here," she said.

Ray said she used play bingo regularly, but grew tired of crowds and the cost of playing.

"Here, sometimes I might play $10 and carry $20 or $25 home. It gives me a little money for gas and other recreations," she said.

Her biggest win was $250, she said.

"We used to go out dancing every weekend," she said. "Well, I can still cut a rug with the best of them, but most can't. It's hard on them, and this is something where you can sit and relax."

At 3 p.m. at Big Sam's on Old Moulton Road, the convenience store, which has 19 machines, resembled the New York Stock Exchange. Bells and whistles filled the air along with the sound of slot wheels rolling around. Those sounds were occasionally punctuated by a lucky winner calling to the clerk, "Cash out!"

The floor was littered with phone minute receipts.

Authorities and gaming machine operators alike displayed a wait-and-see attitude Tuesday.

Business owners said they would remove the machines, if ordered to do so by authorities, but authorities had yet to make a move.

Cases made from gaming machines are misdemeanors and municipalities usually handle them. Burrell's office got appointed to prosecute a case against a Decatur business about four years ago and won.

"We have told cities how to do it, but basically each does it their own way," Burrell said.

At today's meeting with police chiefs and the sheriff, Burrell said, he would give them copies of the ruling for discussion.

"We'll try to achieve some consistency in how various departments handle the issue," Burrell said.

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