FLORENCE — State and local law enforcement agents raided several sweepstakes parlors this week across Florence County as the launch of a multi-agency effort to rid South Carolina of what the attorney general has deemed illegal gambling machines.
Florence police officers confiscated about 90 machines Thursday from two different sweepstakes businesses, one on West Evans Street and one in Hallmark Square on South Irby Street.
Meanwhile, farther south on Irby, Florence County sheriff's deputies were serving search warrants on two other businesses, where they seized approximately 70 computers used to play the games, as well as other assets used in the operations.
State Law Enforcement Division agents participated in the raids, and representatives from the S.C. Attorney General's Office were on hand, as well.
The investigation, in its beginning stages, is a multi-agency effort of the Florence Police Department, the Florence County Sheriff's Office, SLED and the AG's Office, Florence Police Chief Anson Shells said.
At this point, machines are being confiscated and will be stored. Charges are a possibility in the future but none have been filed at this point in the investigation.
“We've had a lot of concerns about these places popping up all over Florence County, and we do believe these are gambling machines,” Shells said. “The Attorney General's opinion is that they are illegal. SLED is enforcing the law upon the attorney general's recommendation, and we'll follow the state's lead on this.”
Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone echoed Shells' sentiments in a press release, pledging his agency's ongoing support in the effort.
“We have received an ever increasing number of citizen complaints about these operations,” Boone said. “The Attorney General and SLED have determined that these businesses violate the gambling laws of South Carolina as games of chance, and we will continue to enforce the law where it applies.”
Earlier in July, Richland and Lexington County authorities raided sweepstakes parlors in their jurisdictions.
The owner of an Internet sweepstakes cafe in Sumter recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging authorities' right to raid his businesses.
In court documents filed this week, 49-year-old Terry Eddie Land said SLED and Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis violated his right to free speech when they seized his machines in a raid earlier this year. The seizures also constitute “selective, inequitable, and discriminatory treatment” of his business activities, according to the lawsuit.
State court records show that charges of operating an illegal gambling house against Land are still pending.
The new machines look similar to ones outlawed by lawmakers 12 years ago, a ban that followed a decade of debate over a $3 billion industry many called the “crack cocaine of gambling.” And, like video poker machines once were, they can be found in places like convenience stores.
But the devices' proponents — like former SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd, who is also Land's attorney — say that while they may look like the banned machines, they are really more akin to contests offered by stores, grocers and even the McDonald's restaurant chain, whose “Monopoly” game offers the chance to win cash and merchandise. Several magistrate courts in the state have ruled that they are legal.
Hartsville most recently dealt with the sweepstakes parlor issue in a planning commission meeting.
Following the advice of the city attorney, commission members at Tuesday's regular monthly meeting agreed without taking a vote that it is not the commission's place to try and keep the gaming establishments or machines out of the city. That responsibility, city attorney Marty Driggers said, belongs to those who enforce the laws.
Hartsville City Council had asked the commission to offer its thoughts and recommendations on addressing the issue of the cafes and gaming machines.
City council enacted a moratorium on any new machines in the city limits in March that is set to expire on Sept. 16.