Birmingham--There's a new development in the showdown between Alabama Governor Bob Riley and the state's casino owners over electronic bingo machines. A judge will conduct a hearing next week on issues surrounding the closed Country Crossing casino in Dothan. Part of the debate is whether electronic bingo machines are allowed under state law. Riley says they're illegal slot machines. Casino owners insist they are perfectly legal. The face-off has prompted early morning raids of some high profile casinos. And as WBHM's Andrew Yeager report, many other operations have shutdown to avoid such a clash.
Bamaco Bingo in Fairfield is closed right now. But last week, on the eve of being closed, the place was going strong with 1,800 electronic bingo machines. Half of the dozen or so players I talk to don't want to be interviewed. One's a church deacon. Another says his wife doesn't know he's there. But Ronnie Williams has no inhibition. He sits in front of a game called Lucky Duck tapping the button every few seconds to keep play going.
"Do you do pretty good?"
"So why do you keep coming back?"
"Something to do. Pass the time. Having fun."
On the screen, symbols scroll vertically. It looks like a slot machine, although Williams points to a small bingo card in the corner of the screen. Casino operators insist it is bingo and it is legal. Mark White is an attorney for VictoryLand, the state's largest casino. He says VictoryLand was operating legally and the governor's raids are a draconian tactic.
"They won't go to court and have a trial and let a judge or jury make that decision. They want to do millions of dollars of damage without court process."
But the governor's policy director Bryan Taylor says the Alabama Supreme Court has already ruled twice that these machines are not legal. The governor is just enforcing the law. Casino owners have also cried foul because these raids have been conducted without search warrants. The state's Republican Attorney General Troy King in fact sent a letter to fellow Republican Governor Bob Riley questioning the lack of search warrants. King declined to comment for this story. Bryan Taylor with the governor's office says there's no problem with the methods.
"If you were to see somebody using an illegal drug in the corner of a bar, an officer doesn't have to leave, go get a judge, go get a warrant and serve that warrant on the individual. The officer can seize the illegal drugs right then and there. And that was the circumstance in this case."
Joe Lester teaches law at Faulkner University in Montgomery. He says there's nothing inherently wrong with conducting the raids without a search warrant, as long as there's probable cause. But given the attention they generate with more than 100 state troopers pulling into a casino in the wee hours of the morning, he says it's probably better to have one.
There are a lot of murky legal questions in this fight. In Alabama bingo operations are authorized under state constitutional amendments affecting individual counties. So the rules vary depending on location. Joe Lester says there's yet to be a case where the Alabama Supreme Court could apply a ruling statewide.
"I would say right now they both have legitimate claims to make. I don't think any side is in any better position than the other."
Back at Bamaco Bingo, Kathleen Owen splits no hairs over the definition of bingo versus electronic bingo.
"Hell no, I ain't playing the same game. Does that look like card bingo to you with a dauber?"
But Owen doesn't care. She thinks the government should stay out of it. But with escalating rhetoric on both sides, don't bet on that happening anytime soon.
~ Andrew Yeager, February 10, 2010