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Gaming enforcement remains dicey

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Active investigations are underway into machine-based games of chance.

Local law enforcement officials insist they are committed to enforcing a ban on video machine games of chance but some also admit enforcement remains difficult because of confusing legal definitions.

Elizabeth City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe said Tuesday there are active investigations into gaming machines in the city. Charges could be forthcoming in some of those cases, he said.

District Attorney Andrew Womble said Monday his policy on enforcing a ban on video gaming machines has not changed from what he announced in 2014, "which is that these machines are illegal by statute and we are going to be enforcing the law."

Womble declined to comment on specific court rulings or definitions that might affect enforcement.

"I can't really comment on the proscriptive aspect of the criminal law other than to tell you that if it's against the law I'm going to enforce it," Womble said.

Still, some six months after law enforcement officials in the region held a closed-door meeting to discuss enforcement of the gaming ban, machines are still featured in convenience stores and other locations around the area.

Asked about the continued presence of machines in local establishments, Womble acknowledged that the games are still present.

"We are aware of where those are," Womble said.

For their part, business owners say they only allow machines they understand to be legal.

On Monday a man who identified himself as the owner of Park N Shop #3 on Weeksville Road said his understanding is that the machines located in his business are legal.

Camden County Sheriff Kevin Jones said he shares Womble's commitment to enforcing the law but added the law in the case of video gaming machines can be confusing.

"I'm committed to enforcing the law," Womble said. "I just want to make sure that I'm doing it right."

While local sheriffs and local police departments are authorized to enforce the gaming laws, the state's Alcohol Law Enforcement agency has special expertise in those laws, Jones said.

ALE agents are trained to recognize the machines and games that are illegal and have expertise in conducting undercover operations as part of enforcing the laws related to the games, Jones said.

Erin E. Bean, special agent with the Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, said Monday interpretation of the law comes down to how prizes are paid out.

"Per the NC general statutes, if a patron receives a cash payout for game credits, it is unlawful," Bean said.

She said ALE encourages business owners to be familiar with N.C. General Statute 14-306, which defines an illegal gambling machine.

Bean said the ALE Gaming Section focuses its investigative efforts on complaints of illegal gambling at ABC-permitted and NC Education Lottery-permitted establishments.

Bean said local law enforcement agencies don't have to "coordinate" with ALE to address complaints of illegal gambling or enforce the state's gaming laws. However, ALE stands ready to assist local authorities if they're needed, she said.

Buffaloe said ALE agents are involved in some of the active investigations in Elizabeth City.

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