Gambling machines in operation in Robeson County
Although the N.C. Supreme Court banned video sweepstakes machines in February 2022, some businesses in Robeson County continue to operate the illegal gambling devices.
That ban includes video poker, which state guidelines consider to be a “game of chance.”
The Supreme Court ruled the gaming machines to be illegal forms of gambling. This ruling was made in the appeals case in Onslow County in the State vs. Gift Surplus LLC and Sandhill Amusements. The Supreme Court determined the law to be games where “chance predominates over skill,” which therefore makes the gambling machines illegal by state law.
Back on March 16, 2022, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that read:
“The N.C. Supreme Court held that ANY video gaming machine is illegal under North Carolina law even if they require some ‘skill or dexterity’ input from the player.”
Now, here it is 17 months later, and machines are still in operation on the premises of some establishments in the county. In some cases, those businesses have recently reopened.
Despite numerous attempts over the last few weeks, Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins could not be reached for comment. Repeated requests for an interview with the sheriff were left with Sheriff’s Office Maj. Damien McLean, who handles communications for the agency and serves as a spokesman.
However, Robeson County Attorney K. Robert Davis sent a copy of a June 14 lawsuit that was filed in Robeson County Superior Court. The case lists No Limit Games LLC as the plaintiff and the following as defendants:
Sheriff Burnis Wilkins; Eddie M. Buffaloe Jr., the secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety; Bob Schurmeier, the director of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation; Bryan House, the director of the Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch of the N.C. Department of Public Safety; the town of Pembroke and Robeson County.
In a statement included in an email with the lawsuit document, Davis states, “You will notice in the final section of the order captioned ‘It is Therefore Ordered, Adjudged and Decreed’ that all defendants are restrained from taking action on removing certain types of gaming devices or criminally charging establishments from having these devices in their place of business.
“This includes the Sheriff of Robeson County as they are a named defendant,” he wrote. “This matter is currently on appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals, however, no ruling has been made. Lawsuits regarding different types of machines have made their way through the courts recently, with varying outcomes. What we thought was settled law per the N.C. Supreme Court now does not appear to be settled based on the attached ruling by the Robeson County Superior Court.
“Therefore, our law enforcement offices are currently in a difficult position on how to proceed,” Davis said. “If they took enforcement action that violated the attached ruling, the County and the Sheriff’s Department could be open for sanctions and liable for any damages. Therefore, we are at a standstill until this case makes (its) way through the appellate courts or until the N.C. Legislature acts to clear up these legal ambiguities.”
According to the court documents, the court action concerns a video sweepstakes system developed and marketed by the plaintiff, NLG (No Limit Games) which “seeks a declaration that its video sweepstakes system complies with the video sweepstakes statute enacted as N.C. Gen. Statute 14-306.4 (also known as the “video sweepstakes statute”).
In contrast, the state defendants through ALE Special Agent Chris Poole and the argument of their legal counsel, the court documents “assert that NLG’s video sweepstakes system violates the video sweepstakes statute and further assert the state defendants’ authority to take criminal action against any persons operating such system.”
Poole heads up North Carolina’s gaming section of Alcohol Law Enforcement.
Through its present motion, the plaintiff (NLG) seeks a preliminary injunction “to enjoin any such enforcement action by any of the defendants during the pendency of the present case,” says the court document.
A preliminary injunction may be issued during litigation, the court document says, when “it appears by affidavit that a party thereto is doing or threatens or is about to do some act … in violation of the rights of another party to the litigation respecting the subject of the action, and tending to render the judgment ineffectual.”
Machines in town
At least two county gaming machine establishments have been operating from N.C. 41 on the outskirts of town.
One of those is the Lucky Dog, at 3842 N.C. 41 South in Fairmont. From the outside, the building appears to be nothing more than a large storage facility.
But on the early afternoon of July 24, a reporter counted 92 gaming machines inside the windowless business. At the time the reporter entered the building, a man and a woman were both playing games. The man said he occasionally wins but the payout is not all that much.
Another female – an employee – sat behind a counter area where she was responsible for letting customers in and out of the locked building.
To enter, patrons were required to press a buzzer at the front door where a posted sign at the entrance reads something akin to “Smile You’re on Camera.” If you were leaving, the woman behind the counter had to unlock the front door, too.
The large room of gambling machines were lined up in rows similar to Dominoes, and the operation appeared to operate as a smaller-scale casino.
According to a source, some people are known to refer to the place as “the casino.”
Other than a small table of free eats provided for those spending their money playing the games, there was nothing else inside but the lineup of gambling devices.
Under the N.C. Supreme Court order, it functions as an illegal gaming establishment.
The business lies within miles of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.
According to a neighborhood resident who requested anonymity, people living in the surrounding community have expressed concerns about the illegal gambling that’s taking place so close by and have spoken of their reservations about the type of clientele who may frequent the Lucky Dog.
Another establishment, at 791 N.C. 41 South, has been operating from what appears to have been a former convenience store/service station. That site is even closer to the Sheriff’s Office.
The building does not have any outside signage, but on four occasions passing by the building, vehicles were parked outside.
On the day the reporter entered, four people could be seen sitting by the machines. Outside, five vehicles were parked. There looked to be at least 20 gambling machines on the premises.
North Carolina lawmakers first banned electronic gambling in 2006, but over the years gambling companies tweaked machine software in efforts to circumvent the law.
A year later, as of July 1, 2007, video poker and gaming machines became illegal in the state.
Based on the Supreme Court ruling, the machines are only legal in North Carolina on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
In response to a Robesonian email requesting comment on a series of questions regarding the machines, Robeson County Maj. Damien McLean said, “Our agency has investigated several murders and are currently looking for several suspects … In fact, we are actively looking for four murders as I type this email.
“It seems that you are claiming corruption in one of your questions. (“There are those who suspect that the sheriff’s office or even the sheriff himself is on the take. What would you say to those folks?”)
“The current administration has been more transparent than any of the previous administrations and will continue to be,” McLean wrote. “However, we will not release any information that may jeopardize ongoing investigations into these matters.”
North Carolina General Statute 14-292 states that it is illegal for “any person or organization that operates any game of chance or any person who plays or bets on any game of chance at which any money, property or other thing of value is bet, whether the same be in stake or not, shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
General Statute 14-309 states that “any person who violates any provision of G.S. 14-304 through 14-309 is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor for the first offense, and is guilty of a Class H felony for a second offense, and a Class G felony for a third or subsequent offense.”
Those North Carolina laws state that it shall be unlawful “to manufacture, own, store, keep, possess, sell, rent, lease, let on shares, lend or away or to permit the operation of, or for any person to permit to be place, maintained, used or kept in any room, space or building owned, leased or occupied by him or under his management or control, any slot machine or device where the user may become entitled to receive any money, credit, allowance or any thing of value.”
Any person violating the operation of five or more machines prohibited by that section is guilty of a Class G felony, state law says.
The resident, who did not want to be identified by name, said he had “had enough” of the gaming machines that are operating openly in the county.
In an interview, he expressed his anger regarding what he called “the unlawfulness about this being allowed to continue and nothing being done about it. None of them (gaming establishments) are open in the city limits.”
Lumberton Police, he said, shut down the machines that were being used inside the city limits within a month of the Supreme Court ruling.
“It’s unlawful,” he said of the video sweepstakes business. “Besides it being unlawful, I didn’t make the ruling up. The North Carolina state Supreme Court made this ruling up.”
In some documents he has compiled on the issue, the resident wrote: “It is strange that no place in the city limits of Lumberton have opened, nor reopened; yet, they are doing so throughout Robeson County. Another indication that our county sheriff department is failing to comply with and enforce all of the laws.
“It leaves a bad smell,” he said.
But the current lawsuit in Robeson County Superior Court – filed on behalf of the video sweepstakes company NLG seeking a preliminary injunction to continue gaming operations – appears to be having a major bearing on any potential law enforcement attempts to shut the gaming machines down.
As Robeson County Attorney Davis said, “… We are at a standstill until this case makes (its) way through the appellate courts or until the N.C. Legislature acts to clear up these legal ambiguities.”