Originally created 09/30/00

Captured machines in limbo



The hundreds of video poker and video slot machines seized by law enforcement officers in Hart and Franklin counties Wednesday are being kept under guard in Lavonia as authorities wonder whether they'll be able to keep them.

Thirty-four store managers and clerks were arrested in raids on 24 businesses in the two counties where video poker winnings were allegedly paid out in cash.

The managers and clerks are charged with felony commercial gambling. Their cases will go to grand juries in their counties and perhaps to trial next year.

But because the machines are rarely operated by their actual owners, authorities may have trouble holding onto them because they cannot prove the owners knew of illegal payouts.

"(Owners) are probably going to try to say they are innocent lessors and they didn't know what was going on," said Bob Lavender, district attorney for the Northern Judicial Circuit.

Mr. Lavender said he was aware of the loophole when the machines were seized and said investigators are working on plans to overcome the problem.

"It's a tough battle, and we want to minimize it, but it's one we've got to fight," he said.

Mr. Lavender said it is not illegal to own or operate video poker machines in Georgia. The machines only become contraband when winnings are paid out in cash.

More than a dozen of the seized machines are owned by Heritage Amusement in Athens. Managers there declined to comment Thursday.

The problem of ownership vs. use of video poker machines has been fought previously in Georgia by Clayton Judicial Circuit District Attorney Rita Lewis, who ultimately lost the battle.

Two years ago, Ms. Lewis confiscated hundreds of machines in Clayton County. But a July 1999 change in the statute governing amusement machines forced her to relinquish custody of the machines.

"We seized enough machines to fill an entire helicopter hangar," she said. "We would have been able to proceed before the statute change.

Now you have to prove that the machines are paid out in cash and that the owner of the machine was aware of it."

The 1999 amendment to the Georgia code, House Bill 88, allowed machines that required some degree of skill and paid out in only coupons or merchandise to remain legal.

Under the amendment, poker is considered a game of skill, as is playing the slot machines, because they are equipped with "stop" buttons, according to Ms. Lewis.

"It's a problem throughout the state and I hope they (authorities in Hart and Franklin counties) keep and destroy all the machines," she said.