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Poker News | Gambling and the Law

South Carolina Court Finds Players Guilty but Poker a Game of Skill

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Sensible regulation of the online poker industry in the United States seems that it may still be a long time in the making, despite the common sense aspects of it that ring true with most poker players. But favorable state laws and pertinent rulings by state court judges are positive in the larger picture, as demonstrated by the most recent decision to come out of South Carolina. In a case that began in 2006 with a home poker game and ended with guilty verdicts for the players charged with crimes of playing “any game with cards or dice,” the South Carolina Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned that judgment of guilt.

It started with a regular game with a $20 buy-in and about 20 participants. It took a nasty turn when the SWAT team raided the April 4, 2006 game and charged them with gambling per an 1802 law that outlaws dice and card games. Five of those charged - Robert Chimento, Jeremy Bristel, Michael Williamson, Scott Richards, and John Willis - chose to take their case to court, which took three years to do. After the hearing before Judge J. Lawrence Duffy at which the defendants’ attorney, Jeff Phillips, argued that poker as a game of skill does not apply to a gambling-related law, Duffy ruled that although he agreed with the premise and poker was undeniably a game of skill, that fact had no precedent in the courts to allow him to hand down an innocent verdict. Thus, the men were found guilty on February 19, 2009.

The defendants filed an appeal in the months after that ruling, and it finally came in front of a judge in mid-September. Circuit Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. wrote a one-page letter that reversed the outcome of the earlier ruling, noting that Texas hold’em would withstand the legal test of being a game of skill should the case be examined by a higher court.

According to the Charleston Post and Courier, Dennis wrote, “When faced with the issue, it is my opinion that the S.C. Supreme Court will likely adopt the ‘dominate factor test.’ Under the dominate factor test, Texas hold’em is not gaming or gambling.” In addition, he noted that the 1802 gambling law is “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the initial decision in this particular case “must be reversed.”

The actual ruling had yet to be published, however, so the players’ attorney refused to comment. Though the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina prosecutor, Ira Grossman, said, “Everyone involved in this case assumed that it would reach the highest courts in the state. I would say that an appeal is likely.”

An appeal from Grossman could allow the state’s Supreme Court to hear the poker-related case and set a precedent for the state, not to mention a basis for legislators to finally overturn the antiquated gaming law still being used by the police department and prosecutors.

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