By Kathi Bliss
An extensive criminal investigation culminated on Friday night in a raid on four businesses, thousands of dollars in cash and equipment seized and more than 100 citations issued for illegal gambling.
In recent months, Caldwell County, and Lockhart in particular, has seen a rise in the establishment of “sweepstakes parlors,” businesses which offer what has been touted as “legal gambling.” According to conjecture and information shared via online social networking sites, these businesses have gained a reputation for offering a legal form of adult-based entertainment similar to slot machines. It has been said, however, that because players play for points, rather than for cash, and because portions of the proceeds are given to charity, the establishments and the activity are legal under Texas law.
Not so, said District Attorney Trey Hicks, who working with local and state law enforcement triggered an investigation into the activities of the businesses.
That investigation, which led to a Friday night raid on four such businesses, determined that at least a portion of the activity undertaken in those businesses is, in fact, in violation of state law.
According to affidavits attached to the four search warrants signed by 421st Judicial District Judge Todd Blomerth on Friday, each of the businesses operated on the premise of gambling, but with a monetary transaction once-removed from actual game play.
Specifically, patrons were given the opportunity to purchase “chances” to play for a set amount of money; chances are issued on an electronic swipe card, or attached to an account code. That card or code is then used to activate a computer, which translates those chances into “points,” and it is those “points” which are wagered for “spins,” much like a traditional slot machine.
At the end of play, those chances are translated back into points, which can then be exchanged with the business for cash.
Internet chatter prior to the raid suggested to patrons that the activity is perfectly legal because patrons are buying and selling “chances” and playing for points rather than money.
That conjectured loophole, however, was not sufficient to save more than 100 patrons from getting tickets for gambling, a Class C Misdemeanor, on Friday night.
“The difference between these places and, say, hosting a private poker game at your house is the fact that, when you host a poker game, the “house” doesn’t keep any of the money,” Lockhart Police Chief Mike Lummus said on Tuesday. “In this situation, the “house” was keeping a portion of the proceeds, and that was one of the main things we had to look at as to whether it was legal or not.”
Additionally, Lummus said, Texas’ gaming statutes prohibit a payout of winnings of cash or merchandise valued in excess of $5. In four separate undercover engagements, officers left four targeted establishments with more than $5 in winnings.
According to a statement released by Hicks’s office on Tuesday afternoon, the investigation and ensuing raid revealed evidence that the proprietors of the “game rooms” were in violation of Texas’ gambling codes, particularly those statutes related to “Gambling Promotion” and “Keeping a Gambling Place.”
Violations of those statutes are Class A Misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000, up to one year in jail, or both. Those offenses, he said, will be pursued for prosecution by the Caldwell County District Attorney’s Office.
“Late last year, with the assistance of DPS, the Lockhart Police Department, the Luling Police Department, and the Martindale Police Department, we began investigating complaints of gambling establishments within the county,” Hicks said. “We will investigate any businesses conducting illegal gambling operations, and we’ll prosecute if that is warranted.”
The Class C Misdemeanor citations issued to the patrons of the four game rooms will be prosecuted by the City of Lockhart, City Attorney and Prosecutor Peter Gruning confirmed on Tuesday. Each ticket may carry a total fine, including court costs, of nearly $300.
When questioned as to the reason behind the specific targeting of the four establishments searched on Friday evening, officials related to the operation confirmed that their primary focus was establishments that operate solely as “game rooms;” they acknowledge they are aware that other establishments also have on their premises the gaming computers, generally referred to as “8-liners.” In addition, there are game room establishments elsewhere in Caldwell County that are also suspected to be in violation of the statutes, and law enforcement will continue to investigate and prosecute those complaints.
The four establishments involved in the Friday night raid were:
– Home Town Sweepstakes, 402 S. Commerce St.
– Trails of Texas, 415 S. Commerce St.
– Lucky Sweeps, 2000 W. San Antonio St.
– KB Foundation of Texas Sweepstakes, 1108 State Park Rd.
Over the course of the evening, officers seized upwards of $5,200 in cash and 160 “gambling devices.”