Internet cafes circumvent law to stay in operation
Enforcement of Internet sweepstakes apparently has more shades of gray than a sultry romance novel.
The Thomasville Police Department faces an interesting dilemma when it comes to the enforcement of a 2012 North Carolina Supreme Court ruling banning Internet sweepstakes. Chief Jeff Insley said slight modifications to gaming machine software is making it difficult for police to determine if any violations are occurring.
"We're still floating in limbo," Insley said. "It has to do with some programming pieces. We're looking at software because that's what a big part of it is. As long as the software meets a certain threshold it's OK."
At the heart of uncertainty is new software which no longer features entertainment for customers prior to learning if they've won or not. Referred to as a "pre-reveal," the software removes that part of the experience and simply tells the results to a person right away.
"It changed the way they're playing the game," said Lt. Jerry Jolly, who conducted inspections of sweepstakes sites in Thomasville. "They're making modifications to the software to skirt the statute. We're still looking at this. The statute still tells us this is illegal. We have to go in and deal with this gray area. As far as I'm concerned, the legislature needs to go in and take out the gray area. Either outlaw those the machines period, or make them legal and tax them. One way or the other. We can't do it 60-40 or 80-20, it needs to be 100 percent."
According to Jolly, by removing the visual entertainment, or pre-win screen, Internet sweepstakes business owners are allowed to stay in operation. Jolly said TPD simply doesn't have the manpower to constantly monitor every terminal in town, waiting for someone to do something wrong.
"It takes time and effort to do that," Jolly said. "I don't know of any city that can afford that. How long do I sit at one stop sign and wait for someone to run it? The statute needs to be made to where it's decisive. It's either illegal to run a stop sign or it's not. There' s not a gray area there. Either you ran the stop sign or you didn't."
Insley said the state legislature failed to clarify the statute, leaving law enforcement in limbo.
"People call asking us why its hasn't been shut down, but technically it meets the standards so we can't," said Insley. "There have been a lot of questions and we were hoping the legislature would have done some things to make it clearer for us. I don't think it got revisited this session and it puts us in a little bit of a bind."
TPD and the Davidson County Sheriff's Office remain in constant contact with the district attorney when it comes whether or not to shut an establishment down. Insley said the district attorney has told his department what he would need in order to prosecute a business owner found in violation.
"The DA's office brought in some folks and we did some training countywide so everybody is approaching it the same way," Insley said. "We have those things in play."
Sheriff David Grice considers Internet sweepstakes illegal despite the modifications. Grice said he is waiting to hear the district attorney's evaluation of several undercover investigations to determine if any arrests are warranted.
"We haven't made any charges yet but we've made some investigations," said Grice. "When the law first changed, we made some arrests and they filed some injunctions against us and went to superior court. The judge ruled in our favor. I guess it depends on what judge you get in front of. In my opinion they're illegal even with the new software, but everybody's waiting for a definitive answer."
Until the state legislature provides a more black and white decision on Internet sweepstakes machines, law enforcement officials will continue dealing with 50 shades of confusing gray.
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the High Point Enterprise:
High Point police arrested a man and seized 49 sweepstakes machines after executing a search warrant Thursday evening.
James Lindsay Matthews, 59, was arrested and charged with felony possession of more than five sweepstakes machines and misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
Detectives from the department’s vice unit executed a search warrant at Skylar Mays, at 2219 S. Main St., at 5:30 p.m. Thursday evening. The search turned up three televisions, 49 sweepstakes gaming devices, a computer, surveillance equipment, 2.9 grams of marijuana, paperwork and $7,209 in cash.
Matthews received a written promise to appear.