Judge puts off ruling in Missouri illegal gambling case

    BRIEF

    Associate Circuit Judge William Devoy, upper right, conducts a preliminary hearing Feb. 25, 2021, in an illegal gambling case in Linn County with Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon, foreground, and defense attorney Nelson Mitten, left. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

    LINNEUS — A  Linn County judge said Thursday he needed time to determine whether games seized in a Brookfield Eagles Lodge are illegal slot machines or a legal raffle.

    Associate Circuit Judge William Devoy didn’t say when he would rule whether the felony charge against Florida-based Tritium International Consulting would go to trial in circuit court. He told Linn County Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon and defense attorney Nelson Mitten at the end of the preliminary hearing that he needs to study the case.

    After about 40 minutes of testimony, McMahon and Mitten agreed on one thing — Missouri law provides no definition of a raffle to describe what voters made legal in a 1998 constitutional amendment.

    The charge against Tritium, which operates as Missouri E-Raffle, is one of three felony gambling cases pending in Linn County. It is different from the other two because, MItten and Tritium argue, their machines are legal because of where they are, not how they work.

    Torch Electronics, based in Wildwood in St. Louis County, and Capital Vending, based in Columbia, will be in court March 9 for their preliminary hearings. Those companies place video machines in retail locations and claim to be legal because a player can know the outcome of the next play and avoid the expense of losing.

    Torch has sued the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other agencies in Cole County in hopes of blocking additional criminal charges.

    Tritium machines do not reveal the upcoming result. Instead, electronic gaming specialist Cody Hanavan of the Missouri Gaming Commission testified, they operate like a classic slot machine.

    Hanavan examined and played one of six machines seized in September 2019. It took in $1,259 in the seven days before it was seized, data in it showed, and paid out $858 in prizes.

    What makes them legal, Mitten argued, is that raffles run by religious and charitable organizations, and the Elks Lodge qualifies as a not-for-profit group, are exempt from laws against illegal gambling.

    Tritium argues its machine works like a raffle. Each bet made by the player buys an electronic ticket, from a finite pool of tickets created for that play, with the winning ticket pre-selected by the machine. Each time the player bets, another electronic ticket is selected from the pool and checked against winners.

    To assure players they aren’t breaking the law, the machine has a disclaimer attached that says it is a raffle legal under the Missouri Constitution.

    For McMahon, it’s a slot machine. Under state law, a slot machine takes a bet, gives the player  no influence on the outcome, and can pay out money greater than the amount bet.

    “It is our contention that it is not your common raffle or sweepstakes, despite the sticker you put on the side of the machine,” McMahon said.

    Mitten said the lack of definition in state law provides broad latitude for designing raffles.

    “We have a very unique machine,” Mitten said. “Our position is that the term raffle is a very broad term that we fall under in terms of the statute.”

    As he made his case, Mitten noted that legislation pending in the Missouri Senate would provide both a definition for raffles and make his client’s machines illegal.

    “I actually think they are clearly intended to be negative to my client,” Mitten said of the bill, which is awaiting floor debate.

    Devoy did not give the attorneys an indication when he would rule.

    “I don’t like it from the standpoint of fundamental fairness when someone is charged with something that is not fairly straightforward and clear that you can potentially be holding someone or something criminally liable for something,” Devoy said. “At the same time, it is a fairly low standard of proof in a preliminary hearing.”