Isle of Wight to begin enforcing ban of slots-style ‘skill games’

Published 11:22 am Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Any operators of slots-style video games in Isle of Wight County have until Jan. 15 to remove the now-illegal gambling machines that have proliferated across Virginia’s truck stops and convenience stores.

Those who continue to operate so-called “skill games” past the deadline could face a five-figure fine and possible jail time, warns Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips.

Phillips, Isle of Wight Sheriff James Clarke Jr. and the chiefs of Smithfield’s and Windsor’s respective police departments – Alonzo Howell and Rodney “Dan” Riddle – announced the deadline in a joint statement on Dec. 28, two months after Virginia’s Supreme Court in October overturned a lower court’s decision to delay enforcement of a 2020 state law banning the pay-to-play machines.

 

Why was enforcement delayed?

In 2021, just as the 2020 ban was to take effect, Emporia truck stop owner Hermie Sadler sued the state in an effort to overturn the law, arguing it gave an unfair advantage to the handful of casinos authorized to operate in Virginia’s larger cities. Pace-O-Matic, a developer of skill game software that’s been championing Sadler’s cause, argues Virginia is missing out on over $100 million in revenue by banning the machines rather than taxing them. The American Gaming Association, a casino industry lobbyist, however, supports the ban and contends the machines lack the same consumer protections required of casinos.

Jignesh Nisar, owner of the Hearn’s gas station and convenience store across the street from Westside Elementary, told The Smithfield Times that the revenue from the now-removed skill game machines in his store had been “helping us to keep up the business end.”

He said he’s had to lay off a few employees to make up for the lost revenue.

“It’s getting hard on us … we cannot do much about it,” Nisar said.

Sadler and his attorney, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, secured an injunction from Greensville County Circuit Court in late 2022 after arguing the skill games ban amounted to an infringement of the “free speech” rights of small-business owners like Sadler. A trio of Virginia’s Supreme Court justices lifted the injunction roughly a year later, writing in an Oct. 13 opinion that the Greensville court had “abused its discretion.”

“We long have viewed gambling and conduct that may be heavily regulated and even banned by the Commonwealth as an exercise of its police powers. … If criminalizing promises of monetary winnings as determined by the outcome of a game violated free speech rights, the Commonwealth would be unable to prohibit unregulated bookmakers from taking best on sporting events or citizens from running private ‘numbers’ games because such activities involve the same basic promise,” Justices Teresa Chafin, Stephen McCullough and Wesley Russell Jr. wrote.

 

What constitutes a ‘skill game?’

The new law defines skill games as any electronic, computerized or mechanical device that requires the insertion of a coin, currency, or ticket to play, the outcome of which is “determined by any element of skill of the player” and may deliver or entitle the person playing to receive cash or cash equivalents.

The definition includes machines where a player can pay more than the minimum amount required to play the game in order to increase the chance of winning a payout. The law contains an exemption for coin- or token-operated arcade-style games that do not enter the player into a sweepstakes, lottery or other form of gambling, but rather pay out a non-monetary prize.

According to the county’s news release, any person operating a skill game after Jan. 15 may face a civil penalty of $25,000 per machine and criminal charges ranging from a Class 1 misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by a separate fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail, to a Class 6 felony if they are convicted of being “an operator of an illegal gambling enterprise.” A Class 6 felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $2,500 fine.

Playing a skill game is itself now a Class 3 misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 if convicted.

According to Sheriff’s Deputy Alecia Paul, spokeswoman for the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office, the county doesn’t presently have a master list of skill game operators in the county with machines still in place. The Virginia State Police has created an online tip form at vsp.virginia.gov/services/gaming-complaint-form/ for area residents to report illegal gaming once the deadline elapses.