January 24, 2013

SLED, local police work to rid Grand Strand of sweepstakes machines

Local and state law enforcement agencies are working aggressively to stop illegal gaming in Horry County, said Saundra Rhodes, chief of Horry County police.

Local and state law enforcement agencies are working aggressively to stop illegal gaming in Horry County, said Saundra Rhodes, chief of Horry County police.

Last week, officers and agents from the State Law Enforcement Division seized multiple game systems from three shops and in Horry County. At the same time in Georgetown, six shops were investigated and 28 machines were seized.

Rhodes, along with Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall, 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson and SLED representatives held a press conference Thursday representing a united front against the illegal gaming and sweepstakes in Horry County.

“Local law enforcement and SLED have been and will continue to have more aggressive efforts in curtailing the illegal gaming in Horry County.”

The games, Rhodes said, are illegal because they pay out money.

At the press conference, information about two seizures that occurred last week in Horry County was released.

On Jan. 15, officers and SLED agents went to Magic Minutes – licensed as a cell phone retail store – on Carolina Forest Boulevard and seized 21 screens, one tower, one monitor and more than $600, Rhodes said. The same day, police went to Alpha Omega Computers – licensed for computer repairs – on U.S. 17 Business near Surfside Beach where 37 screens, 21 towers and more than $1,400 were seized, she said.

On Jan. 17, 21 computers were seized from the 5 Star Internet Café Sweepstakes on North Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach.

No arrests were made in either Horry County or Georgetown County last week.

Thom Berry, spokesman for SLED, said that may be because the focus right now is on getting the machines.

Rhodes said if there is an arrest, it will be handled by SLED in the form of a direct indictment. If convicted, the sentence can include up to a $500 fine and up to one year imprisonment per machine, she said.

Additionally, business owners may lose licenses.

Rhodes said she spoke with Horry County Treasurer Roddy Dickinson Thursday who said he is moving forward to revoke licenses of any businesses in Horry County that have the computers and gaming machines.

The recent string of seizures, Berry said, doesn’t indicate a new initiative against the machines.

“We’ve been aggressively enforcing the statute, actually, since early last year,” he said. “In fact, for 2012 there were over 1,100 of these machines seized throughout the state. Just this year alone in Horry and Georgetown counties, well over 100 machines were seized.

“So the cases are continuing, a lull? No. We are continuing to make cases throughout the state of South Carolina.”

Of the machines seized in 2012, Berry said more than 60 came from Horry County.

“It’s not been a situation where it’s been quiet or there’s been a lack of attention paid to it,” he said. “We will continue to make cases and if we need to do it on a daily basis, those cases will be made on a daily basis.”

The agencies are working to educate the public that may not realize the games are illegal.

“Education is a major part of this effort because people see what may appear to be an internet café where they can walk in ... and browse the net for a bit,” Berry said. “So education is a large part of the effort. It’s not just the law enforcement component it’s the education effort.”

Some businesses are evading seizure of machines with loopholes in the law that the state legislature is working to close.

The Senate recently passed a bill to close a loophole that some say sweepstakes operators use to place the computerized machines in stores and bars and to open storefronts where people can play the games. The bill was expected to be heard in the House this week.

Neither Berry nor Richardson had specific examples of loopholes.

Recently seized games from Horry County were at the press conference and looked like computers with signs explaining how to play and what the odds of winning are.

“It doesn’t matter what you call it,” Berry said. “They look like computers or they can look like whatever they want to. It’s what they’re usedfor. That’s the linchpin. You can call that a sweepstakes machine you can call it Cinderella. But what the law looks at is what is its purpose?”

Members of the community sometimes compare gaming machines to the lottery, but Berry said that shouldn’t be the case.

“It’s apples and pomegranates,” he said. “It’s different issues. Sure there’s chance involved, but this is specifically by statute illegal.”

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