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Video gambling bans inconsistent across Alabama; owners on the move

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Perhaps if William Shakespeare lived in Alabama today he could write a soliloquy regarding the state’s ambiguous “Chuck E. Cheese” video gambling law akin to: “To allow video gambling devices or not to allow them — ah, that is the question.”

It’s a festering question that both proponents and opponents would like answered.

This seesaw question stems from the countless attempts to interpret the 1996 measure, dubbed the Chuck E. Cheese law, which states that video gambling devices are allowed to operate if skill, not chance, is a requirement to win. The law also mandates a $5 maximum noncash payout for prizes.

As district attorneys attempt to understand the ramifications of the law as it relates to adult arcades and video gambling, judges at all levels are facing court cases on the same matter. And law enforcement officials find themselves stumped as to what the law is, what it may be next week and what exactly they should do with the controversial businesses.

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“We want to enforce the law,” Macon County Sheriff David Warren said, “but this is just a political football game. It’s unfair to law enforcement to try and enforce a law that’s legal on one side of the road and not on the other.”

Video gambling device owners and arcade proprietors across the state claim the only consistency in the ongoing controversy has been the mixed messages they receive from county to county, judge to judge and district attorney to district attorney.

“The only thing we can be sure of is that something will change next week or next month,” said Birmingham arcade proprietor Dale Statton, who has opened and closed his establishment on three different occasions.

And with the fluctuation of decisions, arcade owners find themselves determining how flexible they want to be. Some have closed down and gotten out of the business while others travel from county to county and stay as long as the local law allows.

For instance, two female video arcade owners affected by the latest legality changes in Jefferson County were determined to find a new location for what they say is a lucrative business. The two women claimed to have grossed $450,000 in just six months of operation in Jefferson County.

A mayor in a nearby county politely informed them they would have to continue their quest in another township as the local city council had voted to not allow business licenses to be sold to adult video arcades. However, finding a county in which to set up shop should not be too difficult with one-third of the counties in the state still permitting video gambling.

As of the end of June, 23 counties were allowing the gambling machines to operate while 42 had halted the activity. Jefferson County fell in a category all its own. Currently the areas of Jefferson County under jurisdiction of the Birmingham police department are deemed illegal areas for video gambling devices, but the areas under county law enforcement jurisdiction can operate.

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Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Dennis Blanton said Sheriff Jim Woodward closed arcades and then permitted them to reopen on three different occasions in Jefferson County. After continually being sued by arcade owners despite winning a high-profile court case, Woodward finally made the decision to leave alone arcades that were operating within the law in his jurisdiction until the Alabama Supreme Court makes a definitive ruling on the issue.

Many county district attorneys report that the majority of gaming devices in their districts are operated in “mom and pop” type of establishments but are owned by businessmen from states that have banned the machines such as Texas and South Carolina. Still, in other parts of Alabama, full-blown adult arcades are running around the clock seven days a week.

The most obvious county is Montgomery, where an estimated 100 arcades are in operation.

“They are located side by side on some streets,” Statton said, as to his reasoning for not relocating in Montgomery County. “There are just too many of them down there for me to be able to make a profit.”

In some counties, officials allowed the devices at first but have now reversed that decision. Enforcing that decision has not come easily, however.

For example, a letter from 5th Circuit District Attorney Rae Clarke went out to machine owners in his district, which encompasses Chambers, Macon, Randolph and Tallapoosa counties. They were given several months to stop their machines and remove them from the county with a June 30 deadline. Although there are not many adult arcades operating in the district, there are 300 gaming devices located at VictoryLand dog track in Macon County.

As of July 17 the machines were still operating, along with those located in a few small businesses. One law enforcement official said that one machine owner agreed to stop operating his machine when VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor stopped operating his.

McGregor was contacted several times by phone and fax by The Alabama Baptist but he did not respond. Video gambling machines also are operated at GreeneTrack greyhound dog racing in Greene County.

During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Gerald Dial, D.-Lineville, attempted to legalize video gambling at the state’s four dog tracks. While Dial’s bill failed, so did all bills for and against video gambling.

Several lawsuits also sit idle in courts across the state, including the Alabama Supreme Court. Even though four state Supreme Court justices issued an opinion declaring the “Chuck E. Cheese” law unconstitutional, no urgency resulted in the lower cases being moved along so they could be heard by the full court.

Attorney General Bill Pryor filed a lawsuit in Montgomery civil court last August challenging the constitutionality of the law. According to his office, a court date is set for Aug. 28 certifying the defendants as a “class” so that the case will qualify as a class-action suit.

But the word circulating among arcade owners is that their businesses are safe for a while longer.

“We’ve been told that the decision may not be made until all the new officials get put into office,” said an employee of M.T.’s Arcade in Center Point.
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