York County leaders address SC poker ruling

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comNovember 21, 2012 

York County leaders on Wednesday weighed in on the state Supreme Court’s ruling that organized poker games are illegal, even in a private home.

From a legal standpoint, the law is clear that wagering any amount of money on a game of chance is illegal, said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Court solicitor.

People often run organized poker games like casinos, Brackett said, where money is paid to “the house” while wagers play cards. In spite of who wins or loses, the house still makes a profit.

The Supreme Court ruling is specific to organized poker, not friendly games played in people’s homes. However, legislators spent time this year working on a bill that would officially legalize friendly games of poker, but that measure never advanced to the floor for debate. Lawmakers return for a new session in January.

On Wednesday, court justices ruled specifically on a Charleston case, deciding that the men who were prosecuted ran a “Vegas-style” gambling house, Brackett said.

Brackett said there is a difference between organized poker and friendly poker in a private home. But, he said judges didn’t clearly address situations where “four guys are sitting together in the garage playing nickel, dime, quarter, eating bologna sandwiches and talking about football.”

He was hesitant to say whether playing poker in the privacy of one’s home was illegal or not.

“Technically, under the law, that may be correct but I think that the justices who wrote the majority opinion in this case expressed concern if this statute were to be used to prosecute that kind of situation, they might not issue the same opinion,” he said.  “What ultimately we can take from this, organized, casino-style gambling... is illegal.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion brings to light the need for an update to an “antique” state law that does not “adequately speak to the modern problems we have,” Brackett said.

Brackett hopes the ruling will motivate the General Assembly to issue a “clear, definitive” statute that “will address the problems this state has with video poker and video gambling.”

Part of that decision, Brackett said, should include laws that clearly say bringing gambling machines into the state is illegal, and punish the “folks really making money off this,” like gaming corporations.

If lawmakers uphold the illegality of organized poker, but decide friendly poker games inside homes are legal, law enforcement officials would face the “burden” of proving that players are gambling at home, said York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit Commander Marvin Brown.

“If you’re running it like a business and making a profit, you’re clearly in violation,” Brown said.

The agency hasn’t made any recent poker-related arrests, Brown said. Several years ago, the unit raided bars and other businesses operating as organized poker game hubs. Soon, people began moving the games into their homes.

The ruling doesn’t surprise him, Brown said, because organized poker is “organized gambling.” Still, enforcing the new law may come down to weighing priorities, Brown said.

“Is it a friendly poker game or something I want to deal with, or do I want to get that crack dealer with a gun on the street?”

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