Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith said most of the electronic bingo halls in Carbon Hill are closing down after being approached, although the office raided one business in the Jasper area on Friday afternoon, confiscating about 40 electronic bingo machines.
Smith said he would be seeking charges against employees paying out gift cards and those behind the operation, Skill Games off Highway 5 on Brakefield Dairy Road. No arrests were made Friday, as no people were found at the business.
Sheriff officials broke down the doors in a raid late Friday afternoon, after finding the business closed. District Judge Henry Allred signed a search warrant earlier in the day to discover gambling equipment.
Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair, who was not present for the raid, said Saturday afternoon, "I fully support our sheriff and the actions he has taken. We have been in contact with the attorney general on these issues, and this is something that has been festering for a while. I'm very proud of the sheriff for taking action."
Adair said anyone promoting gambling activity can be prosecuted, although he said the gambling law is antiquated, including the fact it only results as a misdemeanor in the state, punishable for up to 12 months in jail.
"Until the law changes, we don't have much choice in picking and choosing what we can enforce," Adair said, adding Smith has "done a good job" on the matter.
The issue arose on two fronts, as officials in Carbon Hill have been increasingly concerned about electronic bingo establishments being opened again. Also, Jefferson County has been involved in controversy with its bingo halls, with state officials sending critical letters to the local officials there and local media doing reports.
Smith said Friday he felt the issue involved electronic bingo operators wanting to test the two sheriffs in Walker and Jefferson counties, as both have just taken office.
Once it was determined Skill Games was closed, officials used a rod-like device, a hooligan tool, swinging at the front doors. It was eventually determined the doors had plastic and bars over them. It took three deputies swinging at the doors to break through, and then a truck with rope was used to pull out the bars.
Officials said that action was legal with the use of a search warrant. Deputies also looked at taking similar action with a wall safe that they did not have the combination for but no action was taken. There was information that the safe was possibly not being used anyway and that a locksmith indicated he could not get into the safe.
About 40 machines were on the main floor, with one handwritten sign noting, "We Pay gift Cards only," with only underlined and followed by, "No Cash!!"
Deputies labeled all the machines as evidence and eventually had inmates to cart out the machines to a large truck. Smith said about 10 other items of evidence were also taken.
Jasper Police Chief J.C. Poe, while not having any comment, said he was present during the raid to observe the operation.
Smith said that afternoon, "I've been getting a lot of complaints in the Carbon Hill area about these bingo areas and bingo locations opening up in the area." Carbon Hill Police Chief Eric House had asked him if they were legal.
Smith was not sure and met a couple of weeks ago with officials with the Alabama Attorney General's Office on their legality. While he said many people have opinions about them, he was charged with following the law, and he was also interested as a number of locations had opened up in Jefferson County.
"We haven't made it to the magnitude that they have in Jefferson County," he said. "I wanted to get a handle on it while it was still on a small scale here before it turns into what is going on in Jefferson County."
Smith said officials in the Attorney General's Office advised him that they had written "a pretty harsh letter" to Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway about the illegality of electronic bingo.
He said some of the businesses got business licenses from the county. "They got them under a vending machine or an amusement machine, and that's not what they are," he said, adding that one doesn't get a business license to gamble or do an illegal activity.
"Ultimately, the machines that we have got that are operating are illegal," he said. "If you pay out any kind of cash payment or gift cards, it is illegal." He said he was told the Chucky Cheese law is not for slot machines.
"You can try to call it skill or whatever," he said "You can call it whatever you want to and put the name 'skill' on it and it doesn't make it a skill machine. They advise the Chucky Cheese law and a skill machine is something like Candy Crush, something you would play on your phone, or something with skill to it. Those are legal, but you still can't pay out cash or any kind of gift card. If you went to Chucky Cheese, you would turn it in and get a key chain or you would get some small value gift or prize."
He said it is easy to determine what is legal. "Parking lots are not full if you are doing it under the Chucky Cheese law. They are full because you are paying out in cash or gift cards," he said.
Smith and House went to businesses in Carbon Hill early last week to inform them that they were illegal based on what was learned from the Attorney General's Office. "We would give them the opportunity to shut down and if they didn't shut down and continued the operation, we would shut them down," he said.
When the two went around, he said 30 machines were located at the Shadowbrook Inn, while three or four machines were in the back room of a Pride gas station as one entered Carbon Hill. Club Pizza in Carbon Hill, as one enters into Carbon Hill, also had machines. Skillville was located behind the police station, and also one was found in someone's garage.
He said all but one of the businesses — the one operating out of a garage, under a business license with the name B&B Arcade — told him they would shut down their operations in Carbon Hill. He understood from House that Skillville moved their machines the night of their visit, he said. The owner of the machines at the Shadowbrook Inn lives in Tennessee, and he told Smith he would have someone by the following Friday to move the machines, as he had been under the impression they were legal.
However, he said a number of those businesses had signs in the window noting they were closed but advising patrons to go to an operation on Highway 5 and Brakefield Dairy Road. The Sheriff's Office provided a photo showing one of the signs, noting that operation was open from 11 a.m. "until."
Smith said B&B Arcade indicates it plans to continue operation and will "be getting a service call just like this one did today. ... If she don't shut down, she'll be next."
He said people are divided in supporting it or opposing it. He said the best advice he could give supporters on either side of the issue would be to contact legislators to let them know how they feel. Those supporting bingo gambling would need to let legislators know they want the law changed to make it legal, he said.
"But until something happens that makes it legal, I'm charged with enforcing the law," he said. "In a perfect world, I wish people would understand we don't make the law. ... I'm not going to wait to get a nasty letter from the Attorney General's Office about not enforcing the law."
He also noted the time devoted to the issue is taking away time that could be used to address a number of large issues.
Smith noted he had advised Adair what he had learned and felt "we're all on the same page," adding Adair is comfortable with Smith bringing cases to prosecute. He said in the past machines were taken, but the current administration will prosecute, even if they are misdemeanor charges.
"If we're going to take our time and effort to check into these things, somebody is going to jail," Smith said.
Moreover, if such operations continue in the county, Smith said he would explore the option of contacting the Internal Revenue Service to take action as well. "It's obvious people are making a lot of money doing this," he said, with hundreds of thousands of dollars generated in the county.
He said it is possible more electronic bingo locations may be outside of Carbon Hill in the county, and the county is not aware of them yet. Smith did advise paper bingo is still legal in the county.
Smith said he did not want to comment about the specific situations in Jefferson County.
The Attorney General's office is planning to send a statement soon about the situation, Smith said, adding that he feels officials have done a poor job over the years explaining what is legal or illegal about the situation.