MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The attorney general’s office has won court cases allowing it to destroy machines seized from gambling halls in Houston, Jefferson and Lowndes counties. The shuttered VictoryLand casino in Macon County is trying to break that winning streak.
A four-day trial over the legality of gambling machines seized from VictoryLand wrapped up Friday in Montgomery. Attorneys on both sides have four weeks to file additional arguments, and then Circuit Judge William Shashy will rule.
The outcome will determine whether what was once Alabama’s largest casino can reopen and compete with nearby Indian casinos that operate under federal law.
“I couldn’t feel better,” VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor said as he left a Montgomery courtroom Friday afternoon.
Assistant Attorney General Sonny Reagan said the state hasn’t lost a forfeiture case that has gone all the way through the court system, and in some cases, machines owners have allowed their machines to be destroyed without a fight.
Attorney General Luther Strange raided VictoryLand, 15 miles east of Montgomery, on Feb. 19, 2013, and seized 1,615 machines and $263,105 in cash from the casino area. VictoryLand has been closed since the raid, even though some smaller gambling halls raided by the attorney general have reopened with new machines.
In court, VictoryLand attorney Joe Espy argued that Macon County voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2003 that allows all types of bingo, including electronic bingo, and the machines at VictoryLand played a legal form of electronic bingo.
A former executive with a gambling machine testing company testified that even though the machines have video graphics and sounds resembling slot machines and keno, they are only for entertainment. He said what matters is the software inside the machines, and the machines at VictoryLand played bingo.
Reagan said the machines meet the criteria for illegal slot machines under Alabama law and they don’t comply with criteria for bingo that the Alabama Supreme Court set in a 2009 case involving a closed Lowndes County casino. Those criteria include players listening to numbers being announced, marking their bingo cards, and declaring when they have a win.
Investigators for the attorney general’s office testified during the trial that they started game at VictoryLand by pushing one button and they didn’t have to do anything else.
Espy said investigators’ visual inspections aren’t enough. He said the search warrant that the attorney general used to raid VictoryLand provided for a forensic examination of the machines, and the attorney general never did that. He also did not present a gambling machine expert to testify during the trial.
“It’s critical. They’ve got nobody who can say these games are not electronic bingo,” Espy said.
During the trial, new information about the case came out:
MORE MONEY: When the attorney general raided VictoryLand, his investigators said the amount of money seized was unofficially $223,405. About six months later, they took the money to a Montgomery bank and had it counted. The amount jumped nearly $40,000 to $263,105. If the judge rules against VictoryLand, the money goes to the state General Fund budget.
VAULT: Investigators said they seized money only from the casino area at VictoryLand and did not seize money from non-casino areas, such as restaurants, simulcast dog races or the vault. Investigators who got a look in the vault thought it might contain more money than they seized in the casino area.
NO GAMBLING: Former state Rep. Johnny Ford and former state Sen. Myron Penn testified Friday how they got the Legislature to vote in 2003 to let Macon County citizens consider the bingo constitutional amendment, but both said they never played any of the electronic games that VictoryLand installed. “I don’t gamble,” said Ford, who is now mayor of Tuskegee.
REOPENED: Two casinos in Greene County and one in Houston County raided by the attorney general’s office in the last two years have reopened with new machines. Lewis Benefield, McGregor’s son-in-law and chief operating officer for the company that ran the VictoryLand games, testified Friday that he visited the reopened Center Stage casino in Houston County on Tuesday and saw games with the same titles as those seized from VictoryLand, including games named “Hotter Than.” A video of an investigator playing that the “Hotter Than” game at VictoryLand was shown repeatedly during the trial.
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