LAURINBURG — With the proliferation of sweepstakes parlors across Scotland County despite the establishments’ tenuous legal footing, law enforcement has teamed up with Hoke County authorities to create a task force that will investigate and prosecute illegal establishments, District Attorney Kristy Newton announced Thursday in a statement.
According to the announcement, that could be all of them.
“Gambling continues to be illegal in North Carolina,” says the statement, which includes the Scotland and Hoke county sheriff’s offices as well as the Raeford and Laurinburg police departments. “We will enforce the law and prosecute cases against those who break the law.”
Sweepstakes parlors and internet cafes, which have followed a murky line of legality since their first appearance, have seen a resurgence in Laurinburg and Scotland County since they were closed by law enforcement in early 2012, when the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the laws prohibiting them.
Recently, sweepstakes businesses have boomed, beginning in Laurinburg and spreading throughout the county, when a case against Carolina Cyber Center was dismissed in Scotland County Superior Court. In the statement, Newton called that decision “a narrow ruling in a single case, based on the facts of that particular case,” not a suspension of state laws against gambling.
“One really good analogy we have used,” Newton said, “Is if you lose one DWI case, that doesn’t make drunk driving legal, just as the loss of one case doesn’t thereby make all gambling legal.”
But so far, more than 20 gambling businesses have opened within Laurinburg’s city limits, with more than 370 individual machines. Wagram, Gibson, and Laurel Hill have also become home to sweepstakes, and several businesses exist outside of municipal limits and away from privilege license fees in the thousands annually.
Robert Outlaw, owner of Carolina Cyber Center on Main Street, maintains that his case was dismissed due to the nature of the software running on his machines, and that systems which reveal the player’s result at the push of a button rather than at the conclusion of a game are not specifically prohibited.
“We’re all grown people — if we want to come in and play a game, we should be able to play a game,” he said. “We shouldn’t be told we can’t play one. That’s just my opinion.”
Moreover, he added that his customers, primarily middle-aged or older, are not “in here throwing their light bills away.”
“If a person 50, 60 years old comes in and puts $20 down, they can play all day long if that’s what they want to do,” said Outlaw.
Another internet cafe owner, who wished not to be named, has been operating for two months under the impression that pre-reveal software is legal.
“We talked to the city police department and they said as long as you are running the kind that you know before you play the game if you win or not, it’s legal,” he said. “We don’t want to operate without the law. If it is illegal, we don’t want to do it.”
According to Laurinburg Police Chief Darwin Williams, the law enforcement task force was created to establish best practices in dealing with gambling establishments shortly after the 2013 ruling. Since then, he said, his department has been keeping tabs on the exponential growth of sweepstakes within Laurinburg’s city limits, noting the serial numbers of machines in each business.
“My department has been going out every week, we’ve been monitoring them, talking to owners of these parlors, just going out and keeping an eye on them and making sure that we know everything that they’re doing so that when information is gathered we can move forward properly,” said Williams.
Though Williams would not comment on the substance of the task force’s discussions and actions since its formation, he said that bringing internet gambling to an end in the city and county will be no simple process.
“It’s gong to be more than just going in there and shutting them down,” he said. “From what we’ve discussed with the task force, it’s not a one-day or two-day process.”
“It’s like any other crime,” Newton said in a phone interview Thursday. “You have to prove that a crime has been committed, so law enforcement has to gather evidence to prove that they’re in violation of the law.”
If convicted, those found in violation could face a sentence ranging from 60 days in jail for a misdemeanor or 30 months for a felony. The level of offense, she said, depends on several factors.
The issue has not come up in state legislature in some years, and State Sen. Gene McLaurin and Reps. Garland Pierce and Ken Goodman said Thursday that they haven’t heard any rumblings indicating that the matter would come up in the short legislative session set to begin May 14.
“I think it’s too complicated to get all the players in place in a short session to really deal with that,” Pierce said, adding that while he isn’t familiar with all the nuances of the law, information he requested his legislative staff dig up some time ago had indicated to him that gaming was never legal in North Carolina.
“Why haven’t they been policing these things all along?” he said. “If I run 100 mph on a state road and a state trooper runs up on me, is that the same thing? I don’t know.”
Pierce suspects the question of legality will not be settled until the state finds a way to tax it in order to receive “the lion’s share of the money.” When that happens, he said, parlors will most likely start to disappear on their own.
McLaurin, Pierce, and state Rep. Ken Goodman attended a meeting with the Scotland County Commissioners on March 25, at which the legislators discussed along with County Manger Kevin Patterson the potential revenue stream that could be created should the county charge fees for privilege licenses. At that meeting, Patterson asked for the introduction of a bill that would allow the county to charge such a fee.
On Thursday, McLaurin agreed that counties should be able to reap the same amount from privilege fees as do municipalities, but added that “the advantages of any tax collected, with the problems that come about … overall, they are not a positive for the community.”
While Pierce said the operations have some advantages to a rural community, they can also serve to exacerbate existing problems within a population who tends to “squander” money on chance.
“Yes, you’ve got business owners who are making money, you’ve got people employed, and people have a right to make money and spend it where they want,” Pierce said. “You can’t legislate morality, and they have a right to entertainment, just like with the state lottery. But then again, you have families who complain about their loved ones losing money.”
Goodman agreed, saying that he hopes to see the issue hit the General Assembly floor so that it can finally be resolved.
“If it’s a legal business we need to regulate it and if it’s illegal, we need to take them down,” he said.
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco. Mary Katherine Murphy also contributed to this report. Contact her at 910-276-2311, ext. 17 or on Twitter @emkaylbg.