09/05/13 — Internet cafe laws stump law enforcement

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Internet cafe laws stump law enforcement

By John Joyce
Published in News on September 5, 2013 1:46 PM

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The Vegas Lights sweepstakes cafe in Pikeville is shown. Local law enforcement authorities, along with many across the state, say they are waiting on more direction from the state before attempting to shut down the cafes, which were declared illegal by the state Supreme Court. Many have changed their games and are arguing that the ruling is no longer applicable.

Wayne County officials are playing a game of "wait and see" before determining their next course of action when it comes to Internet cafes operating online sweepstakes for cash prizes.

Since the state Supreme Court decided in December 2012 to uphold a previously overturned ban on games that have an "entertaining display," counties throughout the state have cracked down on the controversial businesses, shutting the doors to many and charging their owners.

But not Wayne.

It falls under the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division to enforce gambling, Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said.

The ALE disagrees.

In an email sent from Communications Officer Patty McQuillan at the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the state agency cited N.C. State Statute 18B-500, which outlines the duty of a sworn A.L.E. officer:

"The primary responsibility of an agent shall be enforcement of the ABC laws, lottery laws, and Article 5 of Chapter 90 (The Controlled Substances Act); however, an agent may perform any law-enforcement duty assigned by the Secretary of Public Safety or the Governor."

Attorney General Roy Cooper's office said it fought long and hard to win law enforcement agencies the right to police Internet sweepstakes establishments, and now it is entirely up to them to do so.

"The Supreme Court has said the law can be enforced, period. (Each) law enforcement agency has to go out and do investigative work, consult with their district attorney," said Noelle Talley, public information officer for the Department of Justice. "Our lawyers fought for many years and in many legal battles to get that right, for law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to be able to enforce these laws."

In March, the Associated Press reported that Cumberland County Sheriff Earl "Moose" Butler had his deputies raided six gaming establishments resulting in nine arrests and the seizure of dozens of computer terminals.

"We've talked to Cumberland County, and they've had some lawsuits," Winders said. "I'm not willing to put this county in a financial bind enforcing this or any law without training from the state."

Winders cited more confusion surrounding the operation of the gaming locations, stemming from cities and townships within his and other counties continuing to issue permits to new Internet cafe businesses.

"We're looking into it, but it sure doesn't help out when these cities have their own law enforcement, and their councils are issuing permits," he said.

Goldsboro police Chief Jeff Stewart agrees.

More guidance from the state or from the district attorney would help his officers enforce the laws that are on the books, he said.

"We plan on going around and doing it, but we haven't yet," Stewart said.

There is some confusion lingering over what is an entertaining display and if the "pre-reveal" software updates added to many of the games after the Supreme Court's decision brought the games within the law.

"You have to go in and look at the 'entertaining display,'" Stewart said.

Mount Olive Police Chief Brian Rhodes has only one sweepstakes establishment left to contend with in his jurisdiction.

Three others closed down months ago.

But that doesn't make it any easier to enforce a law he says is "conflicting in the way it is written.

"The attorney general says 'the law is there, read it,' but we've had no training, no emails. What are we to look for? What evidence (do we) collect," Rhodes said.

Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace isn't waiting around any longer.

His office has active investigations into several locations within his jurisdiction and he expects to shut some of them down within the next few months.

"We discussed it early on with our elected district attorney and set up certain guidelines for what our investigators are to look for and to only pursue certain leads," he said. "We are charged with enforcing the law, so if there is probable cause, the (operator) will be charged."

Wallace was more certain of his understanding of the law.

"If they are paying out any money, they're in violation of the law," he said.

The issue is not strictly clouded by a law many authorities find "conflicting" in the way it is written.

Money is at stake -- and lots of it.

"Fayetteville, when Cumberland shut them down, that city lost $1.4 million a year," said Blake Proctor, Pikeville town administrator.

Proctor was town manager in Fairmont during the period when the gaming sites were being shut down and investigated in many southeastern counties, he said.

He helped institute fees per computer terminal in Fairmont, a plan the city attorney there also used in Rowland.

"Fairmont charged $1,500; Rowland, $600 and Lumberton, $2,500," he said.

So when the businesses were forced to close, his city lost $40,000 in annual income.

Proctor has proposed a fee of $2,500 on each of the 20 computer terminals operated in Pikeville -- an amount he admits is high, but is up to the town board to modify, to accept or to reject.

A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for the next Pikeville town meeting, to be held Sept. 9.

Wayne County Planning Board Director Connie Price said this county charges no fees and draws no income from the gaming sites.

At last check, in May of this year, Goldsboro brought in $72,000 a year, an amount sure to be missed if the cafes were forced to close.