Gambling laws struggle to keep up with gambling technology

Officers seize computers from an Horry County business in a gambling bust.

When Horry County police seized 24 computers from a Little River business Tuesday, a prosecutor from the 15th Circuit Solicitor's office was there to oversee the raid. Police are calling the machines illegal gambling devices, but officers asked for the solicitor's assistance because such busts are new for Horry County and there's a legal gray area about what's illegal and what isn't.

"It's becoming a situation that the legislature will probably have to address at some point, to be a little bit more specific to catch up with technology," said senior assistant solicitor Donna Elder, who was there when police executed the search warrant on the Wine and Time store.

Elder said the machines that were seized were computers, similar to those used in any home or business.

"The only thing different was, there was a card reader that is attached actually to the top of the keyboard."

Undercover officers were sent in to determine how the system worked. Elder said customers would pay to be issued a debit-like card, made specifically for use on the computers. The player would then swipe the card at the computer keyboard and be given a choice of several gambling-type games to play. Slots, for instance.

"They also have an opportunity to play as we would know Black Jack. I think there's poker on there and several other card games, that you can wager money for."

The debit card would keep tabs on how much a player had won or lost during game play and when the player was ready to quit, "they take the card at that point, they take it up to the register and they cash out," she said.

Similar devices are advertised as offering sweepstakes games, but Elder said the computers seized at the Wine and Time store offer games that are far different than a legal sweepstakes, like you might see at a fast food chain.

"The little game pieces at the fast food restaurants are for a limited time, the prize is very definitive, there is a small percentage of chance of winning, you do not have to pay money to participate."

Signs at the store also indicated that customers could buy computer time for doing Internet searches, like you might do at a library, but that's not what patrons were using the computers for when officers executed their search, Elder said. Though the computers could have been used for legal purposes, Elder said the state attorney general's office has issued an opinion that essentially says, regardless of how the machines are used, if their primary purpose is for gambling, they're against the law.

"Video poker, slots, black jack, there are specific things listed in the statute that clearly says, per se it's illegal. If you've got it, it's illegal."

Elder said the computer seizure is something new to Horry County, but Rock Hill, Beaufort County and other areas around the state are facing the same issue with the so-called sweepstakes games. Makers of the gambling software are finding clever ways to get ahead of the law, she said, making it confusing for law enforcement to keep up.

"Some of this business is very profitable and they're trying to weave through the statute so that it would be legal under this circumstance, not legal under this circumstance."