The N.C. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that gives the Onslow County sheriff authority to enforce a state ban on video sweepstakes.
The ruling comes a month and a half after major sweepstakes software providers struck an agreement with federal prosecutors to cease operations in North Carolina.
The N.C. justices reversed a 2013 Onslow County Superior Court ruling that prohibited the sheriff from enforcing video poker laws.
North Carolina lawmakers first banned video poker and other electronic gambling in 2006, but operators have adapted their games and fought in the courts to stay open.
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The Onslow ruling came in November 2013, when legal challenges were pending.
While lawsuits and criminal challenges were making their way through the state and federal courts, the Onslow judge issued an order that halted enforcement of the law until the legal issues could be decided.
On July 1, when the Supreme Court ruling goes into effect, Onslow County law enforcement officers can go after businesses “using electronic slot machines in North Carolina, which had been ‘springing up like weeds’ in Onslow County,” said Chuck Kitchen, a Raleigh lawyer who represented the sheriff and the county.
Internet cafes, or “convenience casinos” as they are sometimes called, have been described for years as thinly disguised gambling sites.
But law enforcement officers have had difficulty shutting them down.
Owners of the cafes maintain that the sweepstakes are promotional games – not gambling – in which winners are predetermined.
Then in early May, federal prosecutors announced their agreement with five software providers.
In that agreement, prosecutors agreed not to seek criminal charges if the companies agreed to cease operations in North Carolina by July 1.
The companies are: White Sands Technology, with nearly 180 locations; Sierra Software, with an estimated 175 locations; TNT Software at 40 locations; Digital Reveal at 25 locations; and Figure 8 Technologies, which was at more than 200 locations before selling its software in January 2014.
The agreement with the software companies was reached several weeks after the N.C. Supreme Court denied petitions from the owner and manager of an Internet cafe in Tarboro.
The two were convicted in 2013 of running illegal gambling operations, and the state’s highest court let those convictions stand.
After that April decision, top law enforcement authorities in North Carolina said the ban would be easier to enforce.