Smithfield Herald

After DA’s warning, Johnston County towns prepare to enforce sweepstakes ban

When District Attorney Susan Doyle put sweepstakes parlors on notice last month, Johnston County towns took the warning as the legal guidance they had long sought on the Internet gaming businesses.

Doyle’s letter, which advised sweepstakes owners to shut down by Nov. 1 or face criminal charges, has prompted police departments to prepare for enforcement and town planners to think about erasing the businesses from their ordinances.

For instance, Smithfield Police Chief Michael Scott said his department is ready to investigate any of the five sweepstakes parlors that remain open after the Nov. 1 deadline.

The District Attorney’s Office worked with Johnston police departments, plus state and federal agencies, before serving the letters to 14 businesses on Sept. 16. Scott said he and other agency chiefs agreed that because the businesses had been allowed to remain open for so long, it was fair to give them time to close.

“We want to make sure we are doing things the right way, not only for our citizens but for the owners of these establishments,” Scott said. “If they are not operating legally, they need to be held to that. If they are, we need to leave them alone.”

In 2010, the state banned sweepstakes games that use entertaining displays, and two years later, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld that ban. But many operators have kept their doors open, most arguing that their games use tweaked software that is legal.

Across the state, while multiple law enforcement agencies have charged operators, different court rulings have created an uncertain legal environment.

“We have held off to wait until some of these cases worked their way through the court system,” said Clayton Police Chief R.W. Bridges. “The courts have established pretty positively that shutting them down is the right way to go.”

In recent months, Clayton’s planning department has received two to three calls per week from people who ask if the town allows sweepstakes parlors. The town requires the electronic gaming businesses to obtain a conditional-use permit in most areas and a special-use permit in special-use districts.

The Clayton Board of Adjustment approved a new sweepstakes parlor on U.S. 70 Business this summer, and the Clayton Town Council is considering a request for a parlor in the Walmart shopping center.

Dave DeYoung, Clayton’s planning director, said the town has advised the owner seeking approval for the Walmart shopping center to withdraw his application. DeYoung said the town might also amend its ordinances to eliminate the sweepstakes use because the district attorney has deemed it a “criminal offense.”

“If they were going to allow them, we had it in our code, and we weren’t going to take something allowed from the state out,” DeYoung said. “However, this is a pretty clear direction.”

The Town of Selma does not have any sweepstakes parlors. However, the town’s ordinances allow them in certain business districts, said Town Manager Jon Barlow.

That could change with the DA’s action, he said. “Our ordinance is going to be consistent with whatever the law is,” Barlow said. “If the law changes, we need to be consistent with the change that went into effect.”