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Lottery agency now holds more authority on illegal slots

Amusement game operators and distributors are fighting the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission's proposed regulations on arcade games, but the agency already has new authority that could affect the side of the game business that operators don't like to talk about: illegal slot machines.

The operators say that the new regulations are confusing, impose new fees they cannot afford, require paperwork they do not have time to do, and could drive some of them out of business. The new rules haven't taken effect, and could still be revised, but the law that instructed the commission to draft the regulations has already expanded the lottery agency's authority.

The agency is now the arbiter of which game machines are legal, and under the new law also has some enhanced, if limited, enforcement power. While enforcement on illegal slot machines has until now been left up to local authorities, the new law says if the agency finds the locals are not taking action, the state police can be called in.

In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where charges against operators of illegal slot machines are most prevalent, the lottery agency can call on the local state's attorney to investigate.

With names like Cherry Master, Crazy Bugs and Fruit Bonus, the illegal machines have been commonly found in gas stations, bars and restaurants, court records show.

If the machines accept money to play a game of chance that offers only a free play as a reward, it's legal. If the same machine is used to pay out cash prizes, the owner of the machine, the owner of the bar or restaurant, and less frequently the player and the employee making the cash payout can be charged with a misdemeanor.

The exceptions are places where the law allows slot machines, such as casinos and certain social organizations.

Court records show that vending machine operators have in the past often been charged with running illegal machines along with the legal ones, avoiding paying taxes on the proceeds.

Even with the limited authority, the agency has a few tools it can use to enforce the law. It's the agency that decides who gets to sell lottery tickets, meaning agency representatives are often visiting lottery dealers, often the same people who are running illegal slot machines, said Jaclyn L. Vincent, the agency's director of gaming research and chief of staff.

"All of these [machines] being under one agency is helpful," Vincent said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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