At the RCB Internet and Sweepstakes Café in Durham, it’s an hour before closing. Behind the counter, an attendant says that even on this drizzly weekday night, business has been steady. While she continues her closing duties, the stragglers sit in front of computer screens, pointing, clicking and betting on casino-style Internet games of chance. But time is running out, and not just for the customers.
For North Carolina’s sweepstakes café owners, December has been a rough month, and January looks worse.
Last week, the N.C. Supreme Court reinstated a ban on sweepstakes-style Internet gambling operations, reversing a 2010 state appellate court ruling. That decision had declared the ban, passed by the Legislature, unconstitutional.
The cafés could close as early as Jan. 3, the day the ban goes back into effect.
After the ruling, lawyers for the plaintiffs, Hest Technologies and International Internet Technologiestwo out-of-state companies that supply the gaming software used at the caféspetitioned the state Supreme Court for a stay of its decision while they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing. That too, was denied.
Ron Bullock owns the RCB café, plus two other sweepstakes joints spread across the Triangle. The RCB café will remain open until the Jan. 3 deadline, he says. Afterward, he’ll shut his doors and wait. If the court decision stands, Bullock says he’ll permanently close the business. “We can hold on for maybe a month,” he says.
Brian Nick, a spokesman for the Charlotte law firm representing the plaintiffs, says there’s no timeline for appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers for the firm are drafting a petition, he says. But there’s no guarantee that among the hundreds of petitions received each year, the nation’s highest court will choose to hear their case. And the selection process may take months.
Asked what, if anything, the companies can do to prevent the enactment of the ban, Nick says, “We’re exploring all options.”
Documents obtained by INDY Week indicate that as of October, 44 licensed sweepstakes cafés operated in Durham. Many of them are located in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and close to housing projects. For example, the RCB Internet Café sits in a Fayetteville Street strip mall less than a half-mile from the St. Theresa neighborhood, one of the city’s most impoverished and crime-ridden areas.
Durham officials recently revamped local zoning laws to regulate the cafés after the court of appeals’ decision. Two weeks ago, Durham City Council unanimously approved an amendment to its Unified Development Ordinance that dictated where new cafés could be located. Now local officials are discussing how to shut the cafés down.
Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, says that the state is recommending that local officials wait until at least Jan. 3 to enforce the new law.
But there’s no consensus yet among law enforcement on what violations café owners who continue to operate past the January 3 deadline could be charged with.
A spokesperson for Durham County Sheriff Michael Andrews says the department will postpone enforcing the ban until consulting with the attorney general’s office.
The Wake County Sheriff’s Office will do the same.
“Right now, the plan is up in the air,” says Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. The department will work with the county and Raleigh city attorneys’ offices to establish guidelines for charging café owners who aren’t complying with the law.
At an average cost of $1,500 per terminal, Bullock estimates that by closing he’ll lose at least $85,000.
“It’ll wipe us out,” Bullock says. “But the decision is out of our hands”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The house always wins.”