County enforces gaming ban

Don't bet on getting a free pass if law enforcement spots sweepstakes machines in the county.

County law enforcement agencies, including departments from county municipalities as well as the sheriff's office, joined together to clear the county of Internet sweepstakes machines, which were deemed illegal Dec. 1.

"There's people who lost their homes (because of the sweepstakes machines)," said Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid. "When you make it that easy and put it right in front of them, they could lose everything."

Reid said the outlawed machines include several games, such as video poker, video bingo and video lottery, that pay money to players when they win.

Reid said these games encourage gambling and can lead to addiction.

The law went into effect Dec. 1, but since then, two judges asked for clarification in the ban, causing some law enforcement agencies to wait for clarification about the wording in the law.

North Carolina General Statute made it unlawful to "promote a sweepstakes that is conducted through the use of an entertaining display, including the entry process or the reveal of a prize."

Injunctions against the ban questioned the statutory definition of "entertaining display," with one judge saying the phrase was "overly broad and constituted a prior restraint of speech."

Reid said he spoke with District Attorney Jay Gaither on the phone Thursday, and the pair spoke about enforcing the sweepstakes machine ban.

"We agreed the games are illegal, and he's willing to try any case that we have sufficient evidence for," Reid said.

Reid also said he consulted the opinion of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper before choosing to enforce the ban in the county.

The third edition of House Bill 80 in the N.C. General Assembly's 2009 session makes it illegal for anyone to operate an electronic sweepstakes machine, place the machine in operation or know the illegal machine is in operation. Those convicted on a first offense could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, while repeat offenders could be charged with felonies.

Newton Police Chief Don Brown said the city had two Internet gaming locations, but one has since closed.

He said law enforcement officials from the county will work together on a case-by-case basis to enforce the sweepstakes ban.

"We want to make sure all law enforcement is on the same page," he said.