'Sweepstakes' machine ban stalls in S.C. legislature

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'Sweepstakes' machine ban stalls in S.C. legislature

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012   |  650 Words  |  

A bill to outlaw "sweepstakes" video-game machines has advanced in the state legislature, but supporters doubt it will pass this year.

The machines have popped up all over the state, including in Bluffton, Beaufort, Port Royal and Hardeeville. Courts have issued conflicting rulings concerning their legality.

Many legislators believe the devices, which allow players to enter sweepstakes for cash prizes, are already banned under anti-gambling laws that did away with video poker in South Carolina years ago.

Law enforcement agencies think so, too. In Beaufort County, three establishments featuring the games were raided and shut down last year.

In February, a Beaufort magistrate judge ruled the sweepstakes machines manufactured by HEST Technologies were illegal gambling devices. Other judges around the state have ruled differently.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, a primary sponsor of the Senate bill to ban the machines, said lawmakers could save a lot of time and legal expense by clarifying the law.

"Then there would be no dispute," Pickens said. "These machines have already proliferated at a pretty rapid rate. That's going to make it much more difficult for us to address later."

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday for the ban. The House Judiciary Committee recently passed a similar version.

But the bill was blocked by Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010 on a pledge to bring back video poker to the state. Now that it's contested, Pickens said, "there's a greater chance that it will snow tomorrow than we'll get to it."

However, if the House passes a bill and sends it to the Senate, a ban still has a chance, Pickens added.

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said he thinks the House version of the ban will reach the floor because of the intense interest the issue has generated.

Ultimately, the S.C. State Supreme Court is expected to decide the matter.

Meanwhile, SLED Chief Mark Keel has said the machines are illegal and has instructed his agents to seize them. SLED also assists local law enforcement agencies in confiscating the machines.

Some legislators, however, see such enforcement as a waste of SLED's time.

"We're paying SLED agents good money to chase these machines," said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, during Tuesday's Senate meeting. "We're not putting our money in law enforcement to its best use. I'd rather they be called in on serious crimes.

"I ain't ever seen somebody sitting in front of a poker machine get robbed or shot."

Reporter Gina Smith of The State contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

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