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Murrells Inlet: Judge stands by sweepstakes ruling
By Jason Lesley
A Murrells Inlet sweepstakes parlor with video card games can stay in business following a Circuit Court judge’s ruling last week.
Judge Larry Hyman refused to alter a decision he made in December to uphold a magistrate’s ruling that Murrells Inlet Sweepstakes was operating legally. The state’s attorney general had requested the hearing to ask the judge to reconsider.
Adam Whitsett, an assistant attorney general, said he wanted to point out “several errors of fact and law” in addressing the judge. He brought a machine similar to one in operation at Murrells Inlet Sweepstakes to illustrate his point that customers are drawn to the establishment by the perception they are gambling on the machines.
Johnny Gasser, a Columbia attorney who represented the sweepstakes machines, said the parlor is taking advantage of a loophole in state law. Money changes hands during a donation to charity. Contributors who want a prize are given a PIN number to enter into the video machine. The prize is determined prior to any games.
“The game is for entertainment purposes,” Gasser said. “The playing of the game has absolutely nothing to do with determining whether you won or lost in the sweepstakes. It’s not traditional gambling.”
Gasser said the state legislature made video sweepstakes operations illegal in establishments selling alcohol. The operations skirted state law as customers paid for a product such as phone cards or copying services and then got to play video games for a chance to win prizes, including cash. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, said no loophole existed but urged legislators to rewrite the law to end any debate. Legislators complied, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law in March.
“They did my client a favor,” Gasser said. “They closed all the sweepstakes except my client’s.”
Whitsett argued that prizes at Murrells Inlet Sweepstakes are still determined by chance and customers are gambling. “It’s like the lottery,” he said. “That is gambling; so is this. If a customer is lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time they win. The fact that it’s predetermined still depends on luck.”
The judge posed a number of scenarios to Whitsett about video games in Walmart and on laptop computers during their debate. “Playing the machine doesn’t have one thing to do with whether you win or lose,” Hyman said.
Whitsett said the only difference in this sweepstakes game and illegal video poker is that winners are determined prior to playing. “It’s clearly gambling, playing to win money,” he said. “The machines are the only reason they are there.”
The judge then denied the motion for reconsideration.