Many of the electronic gambling machines that have proliferated across the state in recent months are illegal, according to an opinion released by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office Monday.
Some, however, are still operating within the law set by a 2001 ruling from the state's highest court, Gansler wrote in a letter to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. And while a bill moving quickly through that chamber would outlaw another class of the machines, it would still exempt thousands that critics say make illegal payouts in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
The opinion overrules in some respects decisions made at the local level by state's attorneys who approved "instant bingo" and "pull-tab" machines within the past year after an aggressive lobbying campaign directed at them from companies that distribute the devices, which can look and act like slot machines.
"Hopefully, the attorney general's opinion will provide some clarity so the laws can be enforced," Miller said. "What's prompted this is certain manufacturers of these machines have gone from bar to bar and county to county ... and these fake slot machines are springing up on unsuspecting law enforcement officials."
Under Maryland law, slot machines are prohibited, but voters will consider in November whether to legalize 15,000 of the devices in five locations: one each in Baltimore City and in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
St. Mary's County Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron, who has said that the number of slot-like machines in his jurisdiction has grown into the hundreds within the past few months, said Gansler's decision provided the clarity that law enforcement agencies would need to crack down.
"With this specific guidance, absolutely it helps us," he said. His county is planning a sting operation Thursday in conjunction with the Maryland State Police and officials with the state comptroller's office.
"We're going to go out to each of the locations with electronic gaming devices, determine what's there and ask specific questions about what charities they're supporting," he said.
Comptroller Peter Franchot has made an effort to crack down on the illegal variety of the machines and to make sure the ones that are legal pay their taxes, but he testified in support of the ban last week.
"Slot machines and their copycat knockoffs are bad for Maryland and should be outlawed," Franchot, who also opposes legalizing slot machines, said in a statement.
"We should take clear and decisive action now and in November to stop the hidden taxes associated with these gambling devices and outlaw them all once and for all."