September 3, 2015

SC Supreme Court rules organized poker illegal under state law

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that organized poker games are illegal, even if they occur in a private home.

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

The court was considering a 2006 case, in which Mount Pleasant police raided a home belonging to Nathan Stallings and seized several thousand dollars in cash. They also ticketed 25 people for illegal gambling.  Police said the home, which advertised semi-weekly games on social media sites, was an illegal “place of gaming,” under state law.

Stallings’s attorneys argued that the games were not open to the public, only members who joined and their friends could attend. The games were relatively low-stakes, involving a maximum $20 buy-in and an average pot of no more than $10, according to court documents. Stallings took a small percentage to cover the cost of food and drinks, but says he did not make a profit.

A local judge found five of the men guilty, but a circuit judge overturned the decision in 2009, ruling that Texas Hold ‘Em was a game of skill, not chance, therefore not covered under the state’s gambling laws.

The issue is an 1802 law which bans any game played with cards or dice in any “house used as a place of gaming.” In their Wednesday ruling, the S.C. Supreme Court justices said in a 3-2 ruling that the law does not make the distinction between skill and chance, only that money must be wagered on it.

“Whether an activity is gaming/gambling is not dependent upon the relative roles of chance and skill, but whether there is money or something of value wagered on the game’s outcome,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the plurality opinion.

In a separate opinion, Chief Justice Jean Toal called the law “hopelessly outdated” and urged lawmakers to change it. However, she agreed with the majority in upholding the convictions. She worried that declaring the entire law unconstitutional would open a legal path for video poker to become legalized once again.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Kaye Hearn wrote the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not define “place of gaming” and gives local law enforcement the power to determine which types of card games are legal and which are not.

Pleicones dismissed those concerns. He wrote that, by holding regular games with strangers that involved cover charges, the games were similar to what legislators were targeting when they created the 210-year-old law.

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