RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A judge tossed out a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s ban on electronic skill games a month after the state’s Supreme Court revived the ban.
The decision made Monday in Greensville County Circuit Court came in a case brought forward by businesses and stakeholders in the industry, led by a company owned by truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, against the state.
An injunction blocked enforcement of the statewide ban months after it went into effect in July 2021, but an Oct. 13 ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia lifted the injunction after the high court found the case was likely to fail on its argument the ban violated free speech protections.
A Greensville County judge ultimately agreed and dismissed the case.
“We are pleased with today’s ruling,” Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a statement Monday. Sadler plans to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals, per a release from his attorneys.
“Now, this ruling by the Court may cause hundreds of our small neighborhood stores to close their doors for good, which would have a significant negative economic impact at the local level in Virginia,” Bill Stanley, Sadler’s attorney, said in a statement.
The ruling puts businesses that have benefited from the slots-like betting machines and may have been looking for the case to go to trial, including convenience stores and truck stops, on notice as localities prepare enforcement measures.
But there’s no concerted statewide plan for enforcement, leaving the timeline in the hands of local authorities.
Miyares’ office sent a letter to the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys suggesting that local prosecutors wait until Nov. 15 before enforcing the ban to allow businesses to adjust and to help “facilitate an orderly transition.”
Here’s how authorities in the Richmond area say — as of Nov. 14 — they are approaching enforcement of the ban:
- Chesterfield County: “We are planning to do a grace period before enforcement starts, but we don’t know how long it will be. We’re going to focus on messaging and education about the law before enforcement begins,” police spokesperson Elizabeth Caroon said Tuesday.
- Richmond: The city is giving a grace period before enforcement – but no specific date – to give businesses and residents time to learn that the machines are illegal.
- “Once that reasonable period expires – folks will be subject to penalties just like with any other violation of the law. For the skill games – that could be civil and criminal penalties, including fines, the seizure of property and even jail time,” Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards said in a statement. “Should there be probable cause to charge someone, the RPD will work, as usual, in consultation with the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney on how best to proceed.”
- Henrico County: “The Henrico County Police Division with working with the Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to determine a plan to address the new court ruling,” department spokeswoman Karina Bolster said Tuesday. “At this time, we do not have a specific date. HCPD plans to talk with area businesses for voluntary compliance.”
- Henrico’s top prosecutor Shannon Taylor told 8News Tuesday, “In light of the recent judgment in Greenville and consulting with my colleagues, that we were all getting inundated with requests, I am going to reach out to the chief and the county attorney about putting together a statement” that she expects to share Wednesday.
- Hanover County: Businesses with electronic skill games should end “the operation and possession” of the betting machines immediately, per a Nov. 9 release from the county’s sheriff’s office that adds that compliance checks will start in 2024.
- “While we will be conducting checks in the future, as of October 13, 2023, the operation, possession and/or playing of such devices is illegal,” Hanover Sgt. Steve Wills wrote in the release. “Complaints relating to the operation of these devices will be investigated by the Sheriff’s Office, and appropriate enforcement actions will be taken.”
- Petersburg police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The electronic betting machines, sometimes called “gray machines” because they function in a gray area of the law, look and pay out winnings like slot machines. The industry and manufacturers of the machines argue skill is involved — hence the name “skill games.”
In Virginia, possession of an illegal gambling device is a Class 1 misdemeanor, illegal gambling is a Class 3 misdemeanor and conducting an illegal gambling operation is a Class 6 felony. Having a gambling device in an unauthorized location comes with a $25,000 fine per machine.
“While Mr. Sadler is disappointed by the Court’s ruling, both he and other convenience store owners like him are at least comforted and grateful that many members of the Virginia General Assembly have reached out to them and have pledged to help these small businesses by passing legislation that will create a reasonable taxation and regulatory framework for skill games to return to Virginia during the 2024 General Assembly session,” Stanley, a Republican state senator, continued.
Nearly 500 small business owners in Virginia signed an open letter Tuesday urging state lawmakers to consider a bill to regulate and tax skill games in the 2024 legislative session.
“Small businesses are the backbone of Virginia’s economy. They play a pivotal role in creating jobs, supporting our families, and strengthening the fabric of our local communities,” the letter reads. “Our small businesses have come to rely on income from skill games over the past three years. Now our livelihoods, as well as that of our employees, are under threat.”