A recent change to the way Virginia defines illegal gambling could allow prosecutors to go after more computer gaming shops.
The bill, which unanimously passed both houses of the General Assembly this session, “clarifies the existing code for prosecution of illegal gambling by specifically declaring illegal the so called ‘sham sweepstakes’ machines,” Sen. Bryce Reeves said in a statement Tuesday.
He said the legislation is “designed to make it easier for law enforcement to go after and prosecute these types of machines and establishments.”
The legislation takes effect July 1. It still needs the governor’s signature.
Reeves, a Republican from Fredericksburg, said he introduced it because sweepstakes-style gambling is a “real and significant problem for charitable organizations and bingo operators in Virginia.”
At a committee meeting last month, a representative for the state’s Charitable Gaming Council told lawmakers that sweepstakes businesses “tarnish the reputation” of charitable gaming.
“The sweepstakes games are really just illegal gaming,” Chris Petersensaid on behalf of the council. “You purchase something and then you get to gamble because you purchased a vape, or a pack of gum. They’re not sweepstakes.”
A member of the American Legion added that the sweepstakes stores take patrons away from legal bingo games, and that commonwealth’s attorneys have said their hands are tied in trying to shut them down.
Hampton Roads cities have had run-ins with such businesses over the past decade.
Often tucked into small shopping centers, so-called internet cafes started popping up around the region in 2010 after Virginia’s legislature updated its gambling statute to allow certain games and contests if they met outlined requirements — a provision that has since been repealed.
The sweepstakes businesses work by selling a product, such as phone cards or internet time. When a customer buys the product, they are awarded credits they can use to play online games of chance or promotional “sweepstakes.”
Virginia Beach has periodically raided the businesses and seized machines and cash, taking the owners to court. The city took the issue seriously because the businesses “were proliferating and multiplying rapidly, and the police department was getting complaints,” Harvey Bryant, the city’s former commonwealth’s attorney, previously told The Pilot.
Chesapeake, meanwhile, has been fighting several of what they call computer gaming establishments over zoning violations, even after the City Council banned the businesses outright last year.
A Chesapeake judge recently ordered two of the businesses to close following zoning disputes. In court, the city had argued the businesses on Indian River Road and George Washington Highway
were offering gaming along the lines of traditional slot machines. But Del. Steve Heretick, who represents the Chesapeake stores, said the city has agreed to reopen the cases, which will be heard again in April.