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State attorney general urges Legislature to strengthen punishment for illegal gamblingcomment (0)

March 22, 2012

By Luther Strange

As the attorney general of Alabama, I have a sworn duty to enforce the law as it is written and interpreted by the Alabama Supreme Court. Law enforcement officials across the state share that duty, but many times, our jobs are made difficult when the penalties are so weak they do very little to deter the criminals. The worst example of this weakness is found in our criminal statutes that deal with illegal gambling. In the wake of several announcements made by the owners of shuttered casinos that they will reopen, it is clear that Alabama will once again come under siege by gambling interests that are bent on causing our state to spiral back into the gambling problems of the past. Now more than ever, quick action needs to be taken by the Legislature to stiffen the penalties for illegal gambling offenses. Law enforcement needs the tools to win this battle. Casino owners who stand to rake in millions of dollars from the gambling losses of working people are not going to stop until the law imposes felony prison time and heavy fines for promoting illegal gambling. 

The Alabama Constitution strictly prohibits lotteries and games of chance. But over the years, narrow amendments have been passed to our constitution that allow nonprofit organizations in some counties and cities to play the traditional game commonly known as bingo in order to raise proceeds for their charitable causes. The Alabama Supreme Court, however, has made it clear that none of the bingo amendments allows for-profit casinos to operate Las Vegas-style gambling facilities in thinly veiled attempts to skirt our laws against slot machines and other forms of illegal gambling. In addition, several criminal statutes in the Alabama code make it a crime to possess slot machines or to promote illegal gambling. But the penalties for violating the criminal statutes are so weak that the criminals are willing to repeatedly engage in illegal gambling activity because they stand to make millions of dollars.

Alabama has a long history in dealing with the corruption that comes from illegal gambling. The illegal gambling that was allowed to exist in Phenix City in the 1940s and 1950s led to the murder of Attorney General-elect Albert Patterson. The governor was then forced to declare martial law in the city, and the National Guard was sent in to stomp out the corruption. Many of the Phenix City gamblers fled to Tennessee. Some of those very people later participated in the murder of Sheriff Buford Pusser when he began to crackdown on illegal gambling in McNairy County, Tenn.  

Just a few decades later, my predecessor stood idly by and allowed illegal gambling to spread across Alabama like kudzu in the form of so-called “electronic bingo.” Of course, that “electronic bingo” is not bingo at all, but slot machines in disguise. The result in turning a blind eye led to more than 100  “electronic bingo” casinos in Alabama by 2008, with more than 50 being operated in one town alone. Out-of-state gambling interests constructed and opened multimillion-dollar casinos in absolute defiance of Alabama law. The confusion created by a lack of law enforcement action also led to the expansion of Native American Indian gambling on tribal lands in Alabama. Another governor was once again forced to reestablish the rule of law with a task force to stop the illegal activity. This led to expensive and lengthy law enforcement actions followed by several trials. Along the way, state police encountered numerous local judicial officials, who issued outrageous restraining orders at the request of local casino bosses —orders that were overturned time and time again by the Alabama Supreme Court. In the midst of the crackdown, the federal government also embarked on a lengthy investigation that resulted in several guilty pleas, revealing that numerous legislators were offered bribes in exchange for their votes on legislation designed to empower the gambling interests.  

I never want to see those scenarios played out again, but I fear that is exactly what lies ahead if the Alabama Legislature fails to act quickly by passing a bill designed to deter large-scale illegal gambling.

House Bill 414 would create a much-needed deterrent designed to discourage individuals and other entities from promoting, advancing and profiting from illegal gambling. The purpose of the bill would also be to restore consistency in our criminal code and to treat illegal gambling in the same manner that existing law treats other crimes. The maximum penalties for the crimes of promoting illegal gambling and the possession of more than 10 slot machines would be increased from class A misdemeanors to class C felonies. Lawbreakers would be faced with the threat of being charged with a felony and that prospect would certainly go a long way in deterring their criminal activity. With fewer individuals willing to break the law, law enforcement officials could then refocus their efforts on other crimes. For those willing to take the risk, prosecutors could pursue felony charges and a conviction would truly mean facing tough consequences.

My job and my duty is to uphold the rule of law, but the Legislature must provide law enforcement the ability to effectively deal with large-scale illegal gambling by passing House Bill 414. The fight against illegal gambling in this state is not and should never be about politics. It is not about whether I believe gambling is good or bad. This is about the rule of law, pure and simple. But under current law, the reality is that gambling interests stand to make millions of dollars in illegal gambling profits while risking only a slap-on-the-wrist misdemeanor charge. There must be serious consequences for those who openly defy the law. 

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