In September the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office raided Hest Sweepstakes Internet Cafe in Bluffton and confiscated computers hard drives and monitors. The store manager told deputies the customers make charitable donations to a sweepstakes that benefits Skyeward Bound Ranch, a Texas-based nonprofit organization. Law enforcement says the state's gambling laws, amended in 2000 to ban video poker machines, also banned machines that simulate gambling.(Photo: Courtesy of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office)
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A Beaufort County magistrate said she will rule by Feb. 16 whether "sweepstakes" machines seized in Bluffton are lawful entertainment or illegal gambling devices.
Among those who testified Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Darlene Smith were a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigator, a gaming-industry expert and a representative of Texas-based HEST Technologies, which made the 24 machines seized in a raid in September.
The investigator, Cpl. Brent Burns, played the games Sept. 27 while working undercover at the Bluffton operation run by B&L Business Centers of South Carolina. He donated $20 to charity as an entry fee in the sweepstakes, he said. A HEST employee behind the counter entered his donation as gaming credits.
Burns said he played "Flaming Sevens," one of many games offered by the machines, and cashed out with winnings of $25.20.
But the game Burns' played had no bearing on how much he won, HEST attorney Johnny Gasser said. Burns' prize was determined at random as soon as he entered the sweepstakes, not by the machines themselves. Customers enter the HEST sweepstakes either by donating to the Skyeward Bound Ranch, a nonprofit group registered with the S.C. Secretary of State, or by claiming one of four free entries available to each customer each day.
Players find out if they won a prize in one of three ways, HEST sales manager and product developer Bob Houchin said.
Those winnings are not determined by how well the customer played, Houchin said. The prizes are drawn from a predetermined, finite pool, similar to sweepstakes offered by McDonald's and other businesses, he argued.
The machines merely provide entertainment and can't accept or dispense cash, Gasser said.
To underline the point, large banners explaining sweepstakes rules at HEST locations -- which Houchin called "fundraising centers" -- tell customers, "You are not gambling," according to photographs of the Bluffton operation that Smith reviewed.
The monitors and hard drives of the confiscated HEST machines, which look like desktop computers, were displayed in the courtroom.
They don't have to look like slot machines or video poker to be illegal, said Carra Henderson, prosecuting the case for the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office.
HEST is "using modern technology to circumvent the statute," Henderson said, adding that the intent of the legislature in writing anti-gambling laws was to ban all games of chance.
A state Attorney General's Office opinion released June 6 says that any games that simulate gambling, even if used for promotional sweepstakes, are illegal.
However, five magistrates across the state have ruled in favor of HEST and similar machine manufacturers, according to court documents.
A bill pending in the General Assembly is aimed at outlawing such machines. However, anti-gambling laws already on the books are sufficient to prosecute this case, said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone in an interview after the hearing.
"The three elements of gambling are pay-in, games of chance and pay-out," Stone said. "The money going to charity is not part of the gambling analysis."
The Bluffton raid was the third time a video gaming establishment was shut down in Beaufort County.
HEST machines also were seized in Hardeeville during a raid in October. A hearing on the Hardeeville charges has not been set, Gasser said.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.
- 'Sweepstakes' games to get day in Beaufort County court this week, Feb. 4, 2012
- SC magistrate sides with sweepstakes company targeted by police for alleged illegal gambling, Dec. 20, 2011
- President of alleged gambling technology company maintains innocence, Oct. 29, 2011
- 'Sweepstakes' alleged gambling operation resurfaces, shut down in Hardeeville, Oct. 26, 2011
- Sheriff's Office raids Bluffton 'sweepstakes' operation, Sept. 27, 2011
- Some businesses gamble on legality of 'sweepstakes' machines, Sept. 24, 2011