Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Friday, June 02, 2006

Moore, Riley Grandstand Before Supreme Court

Back in January, Circuit Judge Scott Vowell correctly decided that the "Sweepstakes" machines at the Birmingham Race Course are legal. The case is now before the state Supreme Court. Moore and Riley have filed briefs asking the court to reverse.

Here is Judge Vowell's opinion. I'll summarize it for you in case you don't want to read it. In Alabama, lotteries are illegal. The law defines a lottery as a contest where the contestant gives something of value for the chance to win a prize. Gambling devices are also illegal. The key element is that the outcome depends on chance or a future contingent event.

Here, basically, the race course had a bunch of machines that looked like slot machines. They also had a room with a bunch of computers hooked up to the internet. The course was selling access to the internet. Anyone who purchased the access also received a card, which was swiped through the "slot machine." The machine would read the card as either a winner or a loser, but the status of the card as winner or loser was determined before it was purchased. The machine only read it; it did not decide who won and lost. The winners and losers were pre-ordained. Finally, anyone who wanted to play the machines but did not want to pay for the internet access could get a card for free through the mail.

Do you see why this set up is perfectly legal?

It is not a lottery because the customer does not give anything of value for the card. They paid for the internet access and got the card along with it. The card is even available for free. The only value given was for the internet access. Think about it like those coke bottles with "free coke" under the cap. You are not paying for the opportunity to win a free coke; you are paying for the coke. It is the same here.

It is not a gambling device because the result does not depend on chance or a future contingent event. The cards are either winners or losers from the moment the customer receives it. The machine only reads it. There is no chance involved with the machine.

Judge Vowell applied the law fairly and accurately, but that is not good enough for Bob Riley and Roy Moore, who are now asking the State Supreme Court to reverse the decision. I have two complaints about this.

First, it looks like the correct decision. If these two are not happy about the results, the answer is to go to the legislature and ask them to change the law. They may not like the sweepstakes machines, but the sweepstakes machines are legal.

Second, they are both grandstanding. The case was between the race course and the sheriff of Jefferson County. Moore and Riley have filed amicus briefs, which should only be done when you have some special insight to offer. Here is what Moore's brief has to say: "Our law should not be held captive to the devious scheme of certain individuals who wish to promote gambling in the state." Maybe it shouldn't, but the law does not prohibit what the race course is doing. Riley's brief is not much better: "The public policy against lotteries could not be more clearly and unequivocally expressed." No, it could not, but this is not a lottery. Neither of them is a party in the case, neither has any expertise in the area, so the only reason for them to file the briefs is to preen in front of the voters.

Good politics? Yes. Responsible use of resources (and in Riley's case OUR resources)? No.