COLUMBIA — The man once tasked with hunting down illegal gaming machines in South Carolina is now among those defending the use of new devices whose legality is yet to be determined.
Until July, Reggie Lloyd was chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, the state police agency charged with seizing and destroying the video poker machines that have been illegal in South Carolina since 2000. An attorney in private practice in Columbia, Lloyd now represents several companies that have developed new video gaming machines they say aren’t illegal under current state law.
Local judges across the state have issued differing opinions on whether the new machines are illegal, so whether they stay or go could ultimately be up to the state Supreme Court.
The new machines look similar to the ones outlawed by state lawmakers a dozen years ago, a ban that followed a decade of debate over a $3 billion industry many called the “crack cocaine of gambling.” And, like video poker machines once were, they can be found in places like convenience stores.
Many of the new machines have already been seized in raids by state and local police who see them as the newest iteration of the same concept prohibited under the video poker ban. But proponents of the devices say that, while they may look like the banned machines, they are really more akin to contests offered by stores, grocers and even the McDonald’s restaurant chain, whose “Monopoly” game offers the chance to win cash and merchandise.
Marketing themselves as “sweepstakes” devices, the new devices sell a product, like long-distance phone cards or Internet service, and then offer customers a chance to uncover potential prizes, like free merchandise, by clicking through to a new screen.
“These are legal,” Lloyd told The Associated Press recently. “It’s a fixed sweepstakes.”
With video poker, the amount that a player could possibly win wasn’t a certainty and changed each time. With the new machines, because the prize is something concrete, instead of an unknown amount of cash, the new devices are legal under current state law, according to Lloyd.
“Your odds don’t vary. The prize is already set,” he said. “It’s like Publishers Clearinghouse — you’ve either won or you haven’t.”
For the man who took over for Lloyd at SLED, the issue isn’t so cut and dry. When he assumed the reins of the state’s police force last summer, Chief Mark Keel says he immediately began fielding calls from local police and sheriffs worried that the new machines heralded a resurgence of video poker.
“I put them on notice that we were going to begin enforcing these statutes again, and if there were video gaming machines in these locations, and they were deemed to be illegal, they were going to be subject to having these machines seized,” Keel said. “The word started getting out that we were back in business. We’re seeing the same sorts of things that we saw years ago that we saw with video poker.”
Keel estimates there are hundreds of the old and new machines throughout South Carolina. But before he dedicates money and agents to make cases against people operating and using the machines, Keel said he needs magistrate judges to decide in court if machines that have been seized are illegal under current law and should be destroyed.
That’s exactly what is happening in courtrooms around the state. Recently in Horry County, a judge ruled that Magic Minutes machines, which sell phone card minutes before offering the sweepstakes option, violate the state’s video gaming law and should be destroyed. But last month in Greenville County, another judge decided that another sweepstakes game that offers a variety of prizes is legal.
Similar cases are pending in counties around the state, and the disparate opinions could mean it would be up to the state Supreme Court to sort out the issue.
State legislators are also tackling the issue. Bills introduced in the state House and Senate seek to clarify that laws on bingo and raffles don’t authorize the use of any devices prohibited under the state’s video gaming ban.
Lloyd, who had no law enforcement experience before taking over at SLED, said he sees no conflict in now representing companies in the video gaming industry.
“Nobody has more respect for law enforcement than I do. ... I understand the position that they’re often put in,” Lloyd says. “If we have to walk away and agree to disagree, hopefully we do it respectfully.”