Cash-out time arrives for 'video sweepstakes'
By Seth Burkett
As more establishments shut down their “video sweepstakes” games Thursday, authorities said they will take action against business owners who continue gaming operations despite a state Supreme Court ruling declaring gaming machines at a Birmingham dog track illegal.
“If it looks like a slot machine, sounds like a slot machine and pays out like a slot machine, we’re going to treat it as a slot machine,” said Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett.
Bartlett said he was preparing a letter to warn establishments that the machines are illegal.
The letters should be in circulation by early next week, he added.
"This will put everybody on notice that the machines in question are illegal and we plan on enforcing the law," he said.
Bartlett said a number of businesses contacted the sheriff's office to inquire about the legality of their operations. Most did not want to keep the machines if it meant breaking the law, but they also wanted to keep the games going — and the cash flowing — as long as it wasn't a crime, Bartlett said.
Bartlett said he couldn't estimate how many machines were currently operating in the county.
"We know there are two or three establishments that have got more than 10 machines. I expect them to be shut down this week, if they're smart. ... They should be getting them out now. I expect 99 percent of them will pull them out on their own," he said.
Moving out of state
According to Al Samawi, owner of Big Sam's convenience store on Old Moulton Road in Trinity, a representative of Southeastern Phone Time Vending, which owns many of the machines provided to Morgan County businesses, told him the company will remove all its machines from Alabama.
"The owners of the machines came in and said, 'Time is over,' and shut down the whole state," Samawi said. "We haven't heard anything from the city or the DA, but the owners came in and shut them all down. We were full, so we made everybody leave. They said they're illegal, so we don't want to take a chance."
Samawi said he expects the company to pick up the store's 19 machines sometime today or Monday.
"We're happy because they're taking them. It's too crazy, because you never know when they're going to come and shut them down," he said.
Samawi said he thought the change could have a positive effect on business.
"We'll get more customers. A lot of people quit coming here because of the smoke, and the gambling upsets the church people. So we really lose more business because of the machines. We'll lose the gambling customers, but we've lost about 10 percent of other customers since we got the machines," Samawi said.
Not everyone will be looking on the bright side.
The owners of E&P Produce in Neel, a small produce store with a 20-machine video sweepstakes parlor, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but they told a reporter earlier this week that if authorities held the machines illegal it would torpedo their two-month-old business and leave them in debt. E&P uses Phone Time machines.
None in Decatur
Decatur police Sgt. Farron White said owners' voluntary decisions to end Internet-connected video sweepstakes at two parlors Monday put an end to games inside the city limits.
They were the only known establishments still offering the games after an Aug. 2 notice from city prosecutor Wayne Alexander Jr. led to the removal of standalone machines from convenience stores, White said.
Hartselle Police Lt. Justin Barley said he's not aware of any video gaming machines in the city.
"We've had some in the past," he said. "We sent out notification asking business owners to remove them and they complied. ... As far as I know, we don't have any. If they are here, no one has reported them to us."
If Hartselle finds a business with the machines, officials said, they will enforce the law and take the steps to have them removed.
District Attorney Kristi Valls said there are no stores openly operating gaming machines in Limestone County.
"We took the stance after the Jefferson County case that until a Limestone judge or the Supreme Court said different, the machines were illegal," Valls said. "So we never let them back into operation."
Bartlett said authorities have been watching developments in the Birmingham Race Course case closely to see where the law stands on the machines, which some view as slot machines and others construe as legitimate sweepstakes games.
In an 8-0 decision last week, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and found the sweepstakes games at the Birmingham Race Course illegal.
When track owner Milton McGregor sued over a raid in which sheriff's deputies seized 1,300 machines, a Jefferson County circuit judge ruled that a loophole in state law allowed the machines.
"We've always thought that they were illegal, but when the (circuit court) ruling came down in Jefferson County against what the sheriff did, it kind of put us on hold," Bartlett said. "We met with the district attorney's office yesterday as far as how they interpret the law.
"Everybody was in agreement that if we make a case against somebody in this county, it will be upheld. Until this (state Supreme Court) ruling came out, we were kind of in limbo."
Those who run video sweepstakes games could face arrest if they fail to heed notices about the illegality of their operations, but they aren't the only ones, Bartlett said. Those who lease property to the establishments could face prosecution as well.
Bartlett said the sheriff's department has received "some" complaints about the machines.
"Most of it's a spouse calling about a husband or wife spending their paycheck and not paying the bills. Of course, the same thing could happen if they went to Tunica (Miss.). The difference is that over there it's legal and here it's not," he said.
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