Alabama Supreme Court says no to electronic bingo

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Alabama’s highest court on Friday upheld the attorney general’s raid on Center Stage gambling hall and made it clear that bingo can’t legally be played on electronic machines.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled bingo games allowed in some counties are traditional games that involve “meaningful human interaction in a group setting,” not games played on electronic machines.

Attorney General Luther Strange had state police raid Center Stage near Dothan on July 25, 2012. They seized 691 gambling machines and $288,657 in cash. The Houston County Economic Development Authority, which operated Center Stage, challenged the raid and contended the machines were a legal form of bingo. A Houston County judge ruled the machines illegal and said the state could destroy the machines and keep the money.

The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that decision 9-0 Friday.

“This ruling from the highest court in our state once again confirms that so-called ‘electronic bingo’ is illegal under state law,” Strange said.

The Supreme Court based its decision on an earlier case upholding a 2009 raid at a Lowndes County casino.

The justices said bingo is a form of a lottery, which is prohibited by the Alabama Constitution. They noted, however, that several counties, including Houston County, have constitutional amendments allowing bingo. They said bingo refers to traditional bingo with players using paper cards and numbers being drawn, and a win being announced.

The games at Center Stage featured an electronic depiction of a bingo card, but the justices said that will not suffice.

In earlier decisions involving Lowndes and Greene counties, the court said an announcer must be involved in bingo. The court went further Friday, saying the announcer must call the numbers one at a time and allow time between each number for a player to physically mark the card.

“In accordance with the foregoing we reiterate today that the game traditionally known as bingo is not one played by or within an electronic or computerized machine, terminal, or server, but is one played outside of machines and electronic circuitry. It is a group activity, and one that requires a meaningful measure of human interaction and skill,” the justices said.

Dothan attorney Ernie Hornsby, who represented the Houston County Economic Development Authority, called the ruling “extremely disappointing.” He said Houston County was the only county with bingo where a judge validated the bonds used to build the gambling complex, and the validation was clear that bingo machines would be used to help pay off the bonds.

The Supreme Court said the bond validation process did not decide the legality of the machines seized by the state.

Since 2009, state officials have raided several non-Indian-run gambling halls as they did Center Stage. Some have reopened.

One that has not reopened is VictoryLand in Shorter, which was once the state’s largest casino. A Montgomery judge held a trial in September on whether the state can keep the games and cash seized in a 2013 raid, but he has not yet ruled. Assistant Attorney General John Kachelman, who is handling that case, said Friday’s ruling could be considered by the judge.

During the VictoryLand trial, the casino’s attorney made an issue of the attorney general not presenting a gambling expert to testify how VictoryLand’s games worked. In Friday’s decision, the Supreme Court said expert testimony is not necessary. VictoryLand’s attorney, Joe Espy, was out of his office Friday and did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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