Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Police crack down on illegal slot machines

Owner of instant bingo games says they are legit
Published 03/22/10
County police have seized five instant bingo games from an Elks Lodge in Laurel as part of an investigation into what they said are illegal slot machines in the area

No charges have been filed in the March 9 raid, but the county has agreed to let an independent lab evaluate the five "New Fruit Bonus" machines and determine if they comply with state law, according to court documents.

A hearing is scheduled for April 7.

The owners of the machines filed court documents March 12 seeking the immediate return of the devices, vehemently arguing that they are legal.

Attorneys for Frank Moran of Acme Amusements in Baltimore said a District Court judge in Baltimore County ruled as recently as last month that identical games didn't violate any state laws.

"The machines in question are no different in operation than many skill cranes … marketed and placed widely within the state of Maryland," said Timothy F. Maloney, Moran's attorney. "The difference here is simply that the device's target market is adults instead of youths."

Police defended the warrantless seizure of the machines from the lodge at 8261 Brock Bridge Road, which has been licensed since 2001 to operate pull-tab games.

Lt. Francis Tewey, a spokesman for the department, said detectives seized the machines as "contraband" only after reading a 2008 opinion from the Maryland attorney general and consulting with the county Office of Law and the Department of Inspections and Permits.

"We have done this in the past," he said.

Tewey declined to say exactly why the county's vice unit believed the devices are illegal, noting that its investigation continues.

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson also declined to comment about the seizures, citing the pending litigation.

The opinion Tewey cited to support the raid - a letter from Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe to Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert - indicates that instant-bingo machines are generally legal in Maryland.

Rowe said the devices are legal if the chance to win money is confined to the "pull tab" it dispenses to players. Some pull tabs - tickets consisting of two strips of paper sealed together to conceal symbols inside - do not offer any prize money.

Rowe said a machine may legally read the pull tabs and keep a running record of a player's winnings, as long as the machine vends the physical pull tabs as well. She said the machines must dispense the pull tabs off a roll, just as a cashier would dispense them from a counter.

Maloney did not mention the attorney general's opinion in court documents while seeking the return the machines. He relied heavily on a Feb. 22 decision by District Court Judge Philip N. Tirabassi of Baltimore County regarding a criminal case involving Frank Moran's son and the seizure of identical machines from an American Legion post in Parkton, Baltimore County.

Tirabassi acquitted Jeffrey Moran, 50, of Ellicott City, of six counts related to the seized devices, saying the pull-tab machines were not illegal slot machines.

Maloney described the games seized from the Elks Lodge as a "basic ticket-dispensing and skill game." He said the games require players to match symbols to earn points and, in time, pull tabs. The machines do not electronically read the pull tabs, do not alert a player to a winning or losing ticket and do not tabulate a player's winnings, he said.

The General Assembly voted in 2008 to ban the machines effective July 1, 2009, amid concerns they would cannibalize lottery and slot machine revenue.

The legislature decided last April to grant the machines a reprieve until July 2012, in light of the state's ongoing financial crisis. At the same time, the legislature levied an additional 5 percent tax on the machines to help struggling cultural arts organizations.

Tewey declined to say if county police have seized any other pull-tab machines. The Capital learned about the seizures after Maloney filed an injunction last week in county Circuit Court.

Employees of the county's three licensed bingo parlors - Bingo World in Brooklyn Park, Wayson's Bingo in Lothian and Delta Daily Double Bingo in Laurel - said county police had not seized any of their machines.
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