LUMBERTON — Robeson County’s district attorney has given county law enforcement officials the green light to begin shutting down video sweepstakes parlors.
During a meeting with the Robeson County Law Enforcement Executive Officer’s Association at the Village Station restaurant last week, Johnson Britt said that his interpretation of the state Supreme Court’s Dec. 14 ruling is that the video sweepstakes parlors are gambling operations and illegal by state law.
“What makes these illegal is the payment opportunity to win,” Britt said. “If people play these games all day, that’s fine as long as there is no potential for a payoff … . This constitutes gambling.”
Local law enforcement have delayed enforcing the statewide ban on sweepstakes gambling that became effective Jan. 3, pending clarification of the law. Britt told the officers that the law is a criminal violation and is enforceable.
Although some parlors have closed and reopened with what gaming companies have said are “updates” that meet the letter of the law, Britt said that he does not believe the systems can be “tweaked” enough to make them legal.
Sweepstakes halls have cropped up because of what state Supreme Court justices called a loophole since the state outlawed video poker machines in 2007. Sweepstakes parlor patrons buy Internet or phone time that gives them the opportunity to uncover potential cash and prizes with mouse clicks on a computer screen.
Last month the court ruled in two cases that a 2010 state law banning sweepstakes machines as a form of gambling regulates the act of playing, which opponents say feeds the same gambling addictions as traditional video poker machines. The industry had argued there’s no gambling because prizewinners are predetermined.
Britt said that state legislators have the authority to readdress the sweepstakes issue and make video sweepstakes operations legal. He also said that the issue of sweepstakes gambling is still alive in the courts.
Municipalities stand to lose revenue generated from fees charged to video sweepstakes operators.
Linda Oxendine, the director of Public Services and Tax Collector for Lumberton, recently said the city receives approximately $380,000 in yearly revenue from fees brought in by the 18 establishments that had been offering sweepstakes gaming in the city. The city charges $5,000 for a privilege license for gaming, and an additional $2,500 for each machine.
Currently the city’s fees are being challenged in court by several businesses that contend they are exorbitant.
Britt told law enforcement officers that he believes most of those businesses offering video sweepstakes will comply with the ban and cease operating.
“These people have been good corporate citizens and have tried to do everything they can do to comply with the law,” he said. “(When enforcing the law) give these people the respect to which they are entitled.
“The best course of action is to go easy at first. If (the businesses) don’t comply, then we will go more hardcore.”
Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey told The Robesonian that he plans to start enforcing the law immediately. The enforcement will be done in cooperation with local police departments, he said.
Larry McNeill, a retired captain with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s campus police, is president of the Robeson County Law Enforcement Executive Officer’s Association and invited Britt to talk. He said the association meets once a month “to address concerns in the community.”
“We talk about things that can be done to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” McNeill said.