The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled yesterday on the first criminal appeal of a law banning video gambling since the NC Supreme Court upheld it two years ago. In publishing an opinion in State v. Chapman, Spruil, the court affirmed the convictions of two men who operated an Edgecombe County internet cafe.
In 2010 the NC legislature enacted NCGS §14-306.4, titled “Electronic machines and devices for sweepstakes prohibited.” The law makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to operate an “entertaining display” allowing patrons to play gambling games like poker, bingo, craps or pot-of-gold. Any second offense would be considered a felony.
Chapman was the owner of Past Times Business Center, an internet café in Tabor City. Spruill was the manager. An undercover officer with the Tabor City Police Department went to Past Times in 2013, equipped with a surveillance camera. He presented the cashier with $25.00. The cashier presented the officer with a disclaimer which states, in part:
I understand that I am purchasing computer time to be used at this location. I also realize that I can request to participate in the promotional game for free. . . .I understand that I am not gambling. I am playing a promotional game in which the winners are predetermined. The games have no effect on the outcome of the prizes won.
The undercover officer played internet games with the names “Keno,” “Lucky’s Loot,” “Pot O’Gold,” “Lucky Sevens,” “Lucky Ducks,” and “Lucky Lamb.”
A trial judge found both defendants guilty. They each received probation and appealed, contending there was not substantial evidence.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. In its opinion published yesterday, the judges ruled that “It is undisputed that with the use of computers accessing the internet, defendants operated a sweepstakes wherein a prize was revealed to a patron not dependent upon the patron’s skill or dexterity in playing a video game. That the video game did not have to be played or played to completion is not determinative.”
The ban was upheld by the NC Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the ban “regulates conduct, with only incidental burdens on associated speech, and is therefore constitutional.”
Since then, the law has been enforced across the state, including the Triangle, where, for example, the Durham Sheriff’s Office raided a sweepstakes cafe last year, shutting down the business.
In a statement praising yesterday’s ruling, Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement, “Video gambling has been a source of crime and corruption in our state and that’s why I joined with law enforcement to push to ban it. My office has fought for years to give law enforcement and prosecutors the right to enforce the ban and today’s ruling makes it clearer that they have the authority to crack down on this crime.”
Parties with gambling interests have filed civil court actions in attempt to block the law, and Cooper’s office has represented the state in many of those matters, including current cases in Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties.