Missouri judge to rule in January on legality of electronic raffle games

Florida company facing felony gambling charge seeks order blocking prosecution

By: - December 16, 2021 5:55 am

Associate Circuit Judge William Devoy, upper right, conducts a preliminary hearing Feb. 25 in Linn County on whether an “electronic raffle” machine is an illegal gambling device. Arguing the case were Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon, foreground, and defense attorney Nelson Mitten, left. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

A protracted court battle over what is and is not an illegal gambling machine will be decided in early January, just a few days before a Florida company will go on trial for putting its devices in a Linn County Eagles lodge.

Associate Circuit Judge Tracey Mason-White will rule on whether Tritium International Consultants, which provides machines it calls electronic raffles, should be exempt from prosecution because its games are protected by the Missouri Constitution.

After six machines were seized in September 2019 from the Eagles Lodge in Brookfield, Tritium sued Linn County Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon. That did not stop McMahon from filing felony promotion of gambling charges against the company.

At the close of oral arguments Wednesday, the judge asked McMahon and Nelson Mitten, attorney for Tritium, to make final filings in the case by Jan. 3. Mason-White is scheduled to preside over a jury trial in the criminal case set to start Jan. 25.

In court Wednesday, Mitten didn’t deny that the machines would be illegal in most locations in the state. Instead, he focused on where they were used – the Eagles are a tax-exempt organization – to maintain that no laws have been broken.

Under the Missouri Constitution, “any organization recognized as charitable or religious pursuant to federal law” may conduct raffles and sweepstakes. There is no definition of a raffle in the statutes, but there is a provision that protects “constitutionally authorized activities” from prosecution as illegal gambling.

That law protects bingo games, the Missouri lottery and games in licensed casinos as well as raffles.

“It’s our contention that the Missouri e-raffle machine constitutes an electronic raffle,” Mitten said. “I first want to make mention that there’s no discussion in the constitutional provision that limits the type of raffle to be undertaken. It’s broad and just says, basically, any raffle.”

The machine mimics a raffle, the company contends, by creating electronic tickets with several selected randomly as winners. In each round of the game, the player selects a ticket and it is checked against winners. When the player stops playing, the raffle closes.

McMahon, in her arguments, focused on the machines themselves and said her experts have found it to violate state law. In a preliminary hearing in February in the criminal case, electronic gaming specialist Cody Hanavan of the Missouri Gaming Commission testified that the machines operate like a classic slot machine.

“The actual functionality of this machine – it functions as a gambling device,” McMahon said. “What Tritium is trying to do is say that because the Eagles are using it, it’s not illegal.”

If the Eagles want to hold a raffle, she said, their activity is protected by the constitution.

“It is not Tritium’s activity, and the plaintiff here is Tritium,” McMahon said. “Yeah, they keep dragging the Eagles into it, but the plaintiff is Tritium, on its own, and not the Eagles.”

McMahon is the only prosecutor in the state to file charges over the Tritium machines. In a previous hearing, an attorney for Tritium noted that the company has machines in 39 counties.

Under the deal Tritium has with the organizations that host its machines, proceeds after paying winners are split evenly.

The Tritium machines differ from the “pre-reveal” machines in hundreds of convenience stores and other locations around the state. The companies that operate those machines argue they are legal because a player can find out the result of the next round of play and withdraw their bet if it will lose money.

Torch Electronics and other vendors, as well as companies providing retail outlets to house the machines, have been charged in a handful of cases, but most prosecutors around the state have been reluctant to do so.

Torch is pursuing a civil case in Cole County to block all prosecutions for using its games

Mason-White will issue her ruling about the time the General Assembly convenes for its annual session and several bills have already

Lawmakers have struggled to find agreement on new laws to clearly designate the games as illegal, as heavy lobbying pressure from vendors has blocked their efforts. Bills filed for the coming session would specifically ban Tritium’s machines as well as the pre-reveal games.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.