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"Sweepstakes" machines seized in a raid of a Bluffton business are tools for illegal gambling, a magistrate judge ruled Tuesday.
Magistrate Judge Darlene Smith's order said state law bans the video gaming machines created by HEST Technologies that were confiscated by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office in September from a Bluffton operation.
She also ordered that the confiscated machines be destroyed.
Other magistrates across the state have reached a different conclusion, with five of them ruling in favor of HEST and similar machine manufacturers from Greenville to Richland counties, according to court documents.
Smith's order said the machines are illegal because they offer games of chance and customers pay to play, even if they don't insert money or tokens into the machines.
At the store, players would participate in the sweepstakes by making a donation to charity or requesting a free entry from a clerk, with up to four free entries offered per customer per day. The clerk would then give the customers a randomly generated pin number that determined if they won money.
The players could collect money on the spot from the clerk if the number was a winner or use it to play games on a computer that revealed if they won.
Smith ruled the pin number is the "thing of value" and deemed the clerk at the register an "extension of the machine," and just a means to avoid depositing money directly.
"Instead of having a coin slot, they had a clerk accepting money," said Carra Henderson, 14th Judicial Circuit assistant solicitor, who argued the case for the state. "Instead of placing a bet, they called it a donation. Instead of having a lever on a machine, they used a mouse to click a start button.
"HEST can dress things up as much as they want, but the bottom line is that these machines were being used as a tool for gambling."
At a Feb. 8 hearing before Smith, HEST attorney Johnny Gasser argued that the video gaming machines are legal because they don't accept or pay out money and the games they feature have no bearing on a players' chances of winning. A HEST representative compared them to sweepstakes offered by McDonald's and other businesses, with predetermined prizes available only in a finite pool.
Gasser declined to comment on the ruling and said he is discussing what legal options to pursue next with his clients. Attempts Wednesday to reach HEST president Chris Canard and HEST spokeswoman Shannon Canard were unsuccessful.
Authorities have said the legality of "sweepstakes" and other video gaming machines probably will be decided in state Supreme Court because of differing magistrate opinions.
S.C. Law Enforcement Division director Mark Keel has said a statewide crackdown on the machines is being delayed as their legality is debated in court rulings and appeals.
A bill in the General Assembly also seeks to specifically outlaw the new breed of video gaming machines.
Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit solicitor, said Tuesday he is reviewing whether to bring criminal charges against HEST, in addition to the forfeiture proceedings decided by Smith. Misdemeanor charges of possession of unlawful gaming devices against a HEST employee, a 36-year-old Ridgeland woman who was working at the store at the time of the raid, also are pending, Stone said.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.