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Highway Patrol cracks down on video gambling as prosecutors take ‘wait-and-see’ approach

Highway Patrol cracks down on video gambling as prosecutors take ‘wait-and-see’ approach

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Digital Slot Machines

Dave McCall of St. Louis plays a digital slot machine game in South Public Market on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. An estimated 52 such machines, made by Torch Electronics, are in gas stations, restaurants and small grocery stores across the city. Photo by Troy Stolt, tstolt@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Some lawmakers say the video gambling devices flooding the state fall into a legal gray area, but the Missouri Highway Patrol describes them a different way: “illegal.”

Through Dec. 3, the highway patrol had received 211 complaints regarding what it calls “illegal gambling devices.” Some of the complaints refer to the same machine. As of last week, 101 complaints had led to referrals to local prosecutors, said Capt. John Hotz, spokesman for the patrol.

“There are several investigations ongoing,” he said last week.

The wave of referrals comes as debate heats up: An interim Missouri House committee on gaming issued a long-awaited report last week, and two state senators have filed legislation that would crack down on unlicensed operators ahead of the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 8.

One member of that committee, Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, said she wants a public vote on whether to legalize the games.

“Let’s see if Missourians, citizens, want to have these illegal machines that have been popping up all over the state — if they’d like to have them in their own backyards,” Bosley said.

Disagreement over the machines’ legality is rooted in the under-the-radar nature by which they have spread across the state. There are no laws that specifically address the devices. Unlike state-sanctioned gambling, there are no ways for addicts to exclude themselves from gaming, no direct revenue generated for education, and no restrictions on where the machines can be placed.

Industry representatives say the machines fall outside the scope of state gambling laws and provide a financial boon to fraternity clubs, neighborhood taverns and convenience stores.

Hotz said five counties had 10 or more complaint referrals: Boone, Franklin, Jefferson, St. Francois and St. Louis.

After the highway patrol refers a case, local prosecutors can bring charges.

The Office of State Courts Administrator said last week that county prosecutors had only brought two promotion of gambling charges this year: one case in Platte County, in western Missouri, and a second in Polk County, in southwest Missouri.

St. Charles County has received three criminal gambling referrals since July from the highway patrol, said Tim Lohmar, the county’s prosecutor. His office declined to charge in two cases, and took a third referral under advisement.

Lohmar, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said his office declined to file charges in the first two cases because the machines in question gave gamblers the option of viewing the outcome of the next wager before they made a play.

“My view of the present state of the law is that by being able to have a predetermined outcome, that eliminates the chance aspect that would otherwise make these games illegal,” Lohmar said.

The two criminal complaints the county refused pertained to the same store and same owner in St. Charles.

A highway patrol officer visited the store in question on May 22 after receiving a complaint the day before, according to a copy of the officer’s report.

“I walked into the establishment and noticed there were two gambling machines and no one was playing them,” Sgt. B.M. Anders wrote. “I played the machine a few times and won fifteen dollars.”

The highway patrol recommended the owner of the store be charged with promoting gambling in the second degree, a class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum one-year prison sentence.

Lohmar said his office took the third case under advisement because the particular game differed from the first version.

Lohmar said he is awaiting the outcome of a case in Platte County before moving forward.

“We’re taking a wait-and-see approach in hopes that we can get a little more guidance,” Lohmar said specifically of St. Charles County.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd in March charged Kansas-based Integrity Vending LLC with promoting gambling in the first degree, a class E felony. A trial that was supposed to start last week was recently rescheduled for February. If convicted, the company could face a $10,000 fine.

Zahnd said his office has received inquiries from numerous counties grappling with what to do about the video gambling devices.

“We’ve heard from many,” he said in an email. “My assistant specifically recalls Boone, Buchanan, Clay, Clinton, Franklin and Pulaski, but there are several others.”

2020 preview

The 12-page report a seven-member Missouri House committee released last week outlines testimony the committee gathered from various stakeholders, but does not make a formal recommendation on how the Legislature should proceed.

The report says “it may be desirable to act to regulate such machines immediately to resolve uncertainty and prevent further loss of revenue that could be used for educational purposes.”

And it notes that officials at the Missouri Lottery and the Missouri Gaming Commission have offered to provide assistance with regulation, enforcement and drafting of legislation to address the issue.

The report notes that there are likely more than 14,000 so-called gray machines in the state, operating with no state oversight and paying no taxes to state or local governments.

“It is unknown whether or not these machines have a better payout than lottery programs or, indeed, whether they operate in a fair manner,” the report notes.

It notes that the Missouri Gaming Commission, which regulates the state’s 13 casinos, says the terminals are illegal.

“The commission believes that all such machines should be regulated to ensure consumer protection and prevent the loss of revenue to legal gaming operators and the state,” the report notes.

Rep. Dan Shaul, the Imperial Republican who chaired the committee, said he’s received some criticism over the lack of guidance offered by the report.

“Some people have complained that it doesn’t tell us what to do,” Shaul said. “That wasn’t the purpose of the committee. It’s a status report. You can’t fix something until you know what you need to fix. It is what it is.”

Along with a statewide vote, Bosley, one of two Democrats on the panel, also said she wanted the machines limited to 21-and-older bars to keep the machines away from children, and said portions of machine proceeds should go to treat gambling addiction.

“I think that there is room for negotiation to move toward more of my suggestions or even someone else’s suggestions that could be much better for the state moving forward,” Bosley said.

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