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Judge rules ‘E-Raffle’ machines must face trial in Missouri illegal gambling case

By: - February 27, 2021 12:19 pm

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)

Tritium International Consultants, a Florida company that markets gambling machines to fraternal and service clubs, will go on trial on felony charges in Linn County.

Associate Circuit Judge William Devoy on Friday ruled that Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon proved there is probable cause to believe the machine is an illegal gambling device. Devoy set an April 6 date for arraignment before Circuit Judge Terry Tschannen in Linn County Circuit Court.

Tritium, which operates as Missouri E-Raffle, is charged with promotion of gambling, a class E felony, with a potential fine of up to $10,000 if convicted. 

Devoy presided Thursday over a preliminary hearing in the case. He indicated at the end that he was uncertain whether McMahon had shown that the machine is actually illegal.

Along with the criminal charges, a civil suit filed by Tritium is also set for a hearing in April. The civil case, seeking an injunction to block the prosecution, is set for a bench trial beginning April 27 before Associate Circuit Judge Tracey Mason-White.

“I am glad the judge found that there was probable cause because that is why I filed the case,” McMahon said Saturday. “I am looking forward to see how the case proceeds.”

During the preliminary hearing, electronic gaming specialist Cody Hanavan of the Missouri Gaming Commission testified that the machines operate like a classic slot machine.

In response, defense attorney Nelson Mitten of St. Louis argued that the six machines seized in the Brookfield Eagles’ Club lodge are legal because of where they were placed, not how they operate.

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

Since 1998, the Missouri Constitution has allowed federally recognized charitable and religious organizations to conduct raffles and sweepstakes without violating state gambling laws. The Eagles club, as a not-for-profit group, qualifies because of its not-for-profit status.

State law doesn’t define the term raffle or sweepstakes but the criminal laws on gambling include an exemption for “constitutionally authorized activities.”

Tritium owner Jeremy Baxley, in a recent interview with The Independent, expressed confidence his company would prevail.

In court filings, Tritium has argued that players initiate a raffle when they start each game. The machine creates a pool of tickets electronically and preselects winning tickets. The player buys a randomly-selected ticket with each wager and, if it is a winner, the prize amount is shown as a credit on the machine.

Hanavan’s examination of one machine showed it took in $1,259 in the seven days before it was seized in September 2019 and paid out $858 in prizes.

The Tritium case is the second of seven felony gambling cases to reach the trial stage since new machines began showing up in locations around the state. The first, in Platte County, resulted in a conviction and a $7,500 fine for Kansas-based Integrity Vending.

Unlike Tritium’s machines, the other felony cases are over games that allow a player to know the outcome of the next play and an opportunity to avoid the expense of losing. Placed in retail locations like convenience stores and laundromats, owners of the machines argue that they are legal because of the pre-reveal feature.

Wildwood-based Torch Electronics, the most prominent and politically active marketer, also faces felony charges in Linn County, with a preliminary hearing set for March 9. On Feb. 5, Torch and Warrenton Oil Company, owner of 37 convenience stores in the state, sued the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other agencies in a case seeking a declaration that the machines are legal.

James McNutt, president of Midwest Petroleum, is charged with misdemeanor of possession of a gambling device in Franklin County. 

While the cases move through the courts, legislation is pending in the General Assembly to strengthen gambling laws, barring any machine not authorized by either the Missouri Lottery Commission or the MissouriI Gaming Commission.

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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.