Originally created 08/17/00

Legality debate divides city



Allen Morris bought his first coin-operated amusement game in 1961.

His company - A&M Amusement - now owns more than 600 games, ranging from pool tables to video games. And last week, police took four of his tabletop trivia game machines - the first time he'd ever run afoul of law enforcement.

"These machines are in every little bar, honky tonk, or Applebees in America," he said, as he leaned against a Megatouch 5 game in his cream-colored building on Battle Row. "They are purely for amusement. You can't win a glass of water on them."

Now, Mr. Morris is gunshy - afraid of getting caught in the hubbub surrounding video poker in Augusta and Columbia County.

The controversy is over which machines are legal and illegal and who governs them. It's a discussion that has divided some local business owners and officials in the past few weeks.

Since last week, Mr. Morris has gotten all four machines back. The rest of his machines were in storage during the raid - a precaution he's glad he took.

"I'm a coin-operated dealer," he said. "That's all I want to be. I don't want to be a lawyer or anything else."

But when it comes to interpreting Georgia's laws governing coin-operated amusement games, most lawyers say it's pretty easy. In fact, there have been no calls for interpretation help to the state attorney general's office, said Daryl Robinson, a deputy counsel for the office.

But, depending on who you ask, the laws - included in the "Offenses Against Health and Morals" section of the Georgia code - are definitely open for interpretation.

"I think Georgia's law on this subject is very clear," said Les Schneider, attorney for the Georgia Amusement & Music Operators Association. "We've been told by other states ours is the clearest in the country. I think what everybody is reacting to the fear of what is coming over from South Carolina."

For Mr. Morris' part, the law applies like this: Any video game must have an element of skill, and operators cannot pay out more than $5 per hand. Even then, the $5 must be in free games, merchandise or gift certificates - nearly anything but cash. Because players can redeem the gift certificates for merchandise, the games are commonly called redemption games by owners and operators.

"The biggest no-no on our business is the payout of cash," Mr. Morris said. "If you pay cash, I hope you get caught."

To that end, Mr. Morris, Mr. Schneider and District Attorney Danny Craig agree. All three say getting rid of the illegal machines and blocking full-scale video poker emporiums is paramount.

"When the machines are part of a larger business, in the vast majority of situations, there is no problem," Mr. Schneider said. "When it's the predominant piece of the business, that's where communities seem to react against it in certain situations."

From there, though, the two sides are far apart.

Mr. Craig also thinks the law is very clear: There's a strong delineation between skill games - pinball, Skee-Ball and trivial pursuit - and games that don't require skill, such as slot machines. And then there's the machines in the middle - machines for which the amount of skill required is debatable.

"I don't think video poker, or what they call Georgia Redemption Machines or Cherry Masters are in a gray area," Mr. Craig said. "They are in a black area, and they are illegal."

Last week - at Mr. Craig's direction - Columbia County deputies seized more than 50 video games, including Cherry Masters and the Georgia Redemption Machines. They gave back four - all table-top trivia games and all owned by Mr. Morris.

"Our association has always taken the position we don't want people who are going to cause a problem for this business," Mr. Schneider said. "At the same time, we want to make sure the honest operators don't get painted in with the same broad brush the bad guys do."

Mr. Craig said, if needed, he's ready to take the issue to court - either over the legality of machines or the issuance of gift certificates from chain grocery or discount stores as prizes.

And Mr. Craig acknowledged the varied opinions on the machines.

"The natural thing for people who have an interest in the outcome of an issue would be for them to put an interpretation on the law that is most favorable for themselves," he said. "That's just human nature."

Mr. Morris chalks it up to an outsider's view of the business.

"The whole problem is these machines coming out of South Carolina," he said. "(Mr. Craig) is trying to stop that. He just doesn't understand the amusement business because he's not in it."

Another area of confusion is who regulates the machines. Some put the emphasis on the state Department of Revenue. Others look at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"It's not the GBI that approves video poker machines," said John Bankhead, spokesman for the bureau.

He points people to the Georgia Department of Revenue. That's where coin-operated amusement machine owners go to get a $2,500 master license and a $25 permit for each machine. Mr. Morris buys about 700 permits a year.

"Our only involvement has to do with coin-operated machines," said Dennis Rich, the chief of operations for the departments's Alcohol and Tobaccos Division, which oversees the games. "We don't make any judgment on the legality of those things. As close as I've determined, that determination is made by the local sheriff's departments and district attorneys."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.