Originally created 01/17/97

County to delay video poker trials



AIKEN - Aiken County won't prosecute video poker owners operating their machines without licenses - at least for the time being.

The county first wants to hear the outcome of a separate hearing Friday before scheduling trial dates for more than 21 businesses cited for not having gaming permits, Chief Magistrate Max Meek said Monday. The first case was originally scheduled to have been heard Monday afternoon.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys representing local poker operators have asked Circuit Judge Costa M. Pleicones to force the county to issue those licenses. The hearing is scheduled for noon Friday in Aiken County Court of Common Pleas.

The county has refused to issue permits until Aiken County Council finishes discussing a zoning change that would further restrict where the games can locate. Not having a county license carries a criminal penalty of up to $200 in fines and 30 days in jail per machine.

The council's current proposal would keep the machines 150 feet from neighboring properties.

But the planning commission has recommended the county take a harder line and limit the games to areas zoned Urban Development - mostly commercial areas - in addition to the 150-foot setbacks.

Meanwhile, all pending magistrate cases will be heard by one judge to assure that all rulings are consistent, Judge Meek said.

"We want to make a unified decision on the thing," he said. "There's no need to have five or six different courts handling it. We should have one court set a precedent, instead of three or four courts doing something different."

At the same time, separate suits challenging existing zoning restrictions in the cities of Aiken and North Augusta also are pending.

Judge Pleicones also will hear two requests Friday for temporary injunctions to stop both cities from enforcing their video poker restrictions.

The lawsuits claim the ordinances are "arbitrary, unreasonable" and deny businesses the right to operate the games under state law.

North Augusta City Administrator Charles Martin said the city currently has no plans to hold off prosecuting three businesses cited for illegally operating the machines in the city limits.

North Augusta and the county have scrambled to put zoning limits in place for the games since the state Supreme Court in November threw out the results of a county-by-county referendum held statewide two years ago that banned the games in 12 counties, including Aiken.

The city of Aiken has had zoning restrictions for the games on the books since 1993.