Sweepstakes halls fight to survive after ruling
Dec 15, 2012 (The Wilson Daily Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Customers were turned away Friday night at Fish the Net, an Internet sweepstakes business in Wilson, and told to return this morning at 10 a.m.
Precious Batts, who manages the business, said they had to make some Internet upgrades during the night to hopefully be compliant with the new ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court Friday banning electronic video games.
Other sweepstakes businesses in Wilson were open and their parking lots full Friday evening.
Those who uphold the law aren't too sure what the new ruling actually means.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper's office said Friday that attorneys with their office are reviewing the rulings to determine how to advise police about enforcing the law.
But Cooper is pleased with the ruling.
"I stood with law enforcement to push for a ban on this kind of gambling and our lawyers have argued for years for the right to enforce it. The Supreme Court got this one right."
Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard said he is aware of the ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court, but did not say he would be shutting businesses down this weekend.
"I was aware of it and will review the decision by the Supreme Court," Woodard said. "I was also made aware that the businesses have been reviewing the decision and we hope they comply with the law."
Lawmakers who are against the cafes say the games are gambling and businesses are using sweepstakes as a loophole since the state outlawed video poker machines in 2007.
Amusement machine companies turned to the appeals court to overturn a 2010 law banning sweepstakes machines as a form of gambling.
But N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson wrote that businesses that changes from video poker to video sweepstakes were using "a mere pretext for the conduct of a de facto gambling scheme."
Courts throughout the country have consistently ruled that states have the power to protect public "health, safety, and welfare concerns presented by gambling operations," Hudson wrote, "even if they cleverly avoid the traditional definition of gambling."
Amusement machine companies, a software developer, and firms that market long-distance phone and Internet services had argued in court that just as books and films are protected under free speech, so are the video games.
But for now there is some confusion as to whether these businesses will shut down and, if so, for how long.
"The operators and the developers will have to go back to the drawing board to see how they can run a legal business under the law," said Brad Crone, a spokesman for the Internet Based Sweepstakes Operators.
Batts is nervous about the future of her job, she said.
"This whole thing is starting to drain me," Batts said as she waited for the Internet upgrade.
"I'm at a point now where it is scary. I have employees and I have a mortgage. We all have lives to live and we have people depending on us."
Batts said the whole thing has been back and forth and up and down.
"This will be the third time we have changed our computer system," Batts said. "We don't want to do anything that isn't lawful. We are a lawful business."
Beginning today, they will have to go back to the blue and green screen, which they already had before. In this game the customer has to pick their spins first. "It's like a scratch off," Batts explains. "It will ask them how much money they want to play for, and how many times they want to play for that amount, and do they want to see the spins or not."
They changed Friday night from the screen where video customers can see in the top left corner how much they will win, Batts said.
Batts said the large majority of the customers she sees are older people.
"They don't like the senior citizen centers, and they don't want to be out with the younger crowd drinking," Batts said. "They have their friends here and they socialize and are comfortable here."
Batts said she has never gone out to pass out fliers or business cards to ask people to come to Fish the Net.
"People come here because they want to," Batts said.
She said she didn't want to, but she had to turn her customers away Friday.
"I had to tell them to go to other Internet cafes," Batts said. "One of my customers told me that he just didn't have anything else to do. He told me he had gone to his son's house and went shopping. But this is where he likes to come."
Batts said her Internet cafe is a safe place for people who want to be there.
Batts is preparing to move to a location on U.S. 301, but said she thinks the location they are in now on Forest Hills Road is the right place.
"No doubt about it, we are moving because the law said we have to," Batts clarifies. "But they want us in an I-2 location -- an industrial location. It's a zone that doesn't fit the category of what we do. We don't make anything. We aren't manufacturing. But whatever they have told us to do, we do it."
Batts said people look at Internet cafes and assume they are just raking in the money.
"Our electric bills are high, we have to pay the city $2,500 for each terminal, the games are not free because they get 25 percent. We feed our customers, employees have to be paid," Batts said. "They are taxing us out of business."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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