(Coming Saturday — A closer look at the stores with the video games and more details about the games themselves.)
Bulloch County commissioners and law enforcement are cracking down on what they believe may be illegal gambling in the county. The video games found in some local convenience stores and truck stops are not allowed in establishments that sell alcohol, and many store owners have removed the machines after receiving warning letters from the county.
But at least four locations still have the machines, said Bulloch County Sheriff’s Inv. Jared Akins.
Akins gave a presentation Tuesday during the Bulloch County Commission meeting, showing photographs of video games, some of which are no more than electronic slot machines, that were found at various locations county wide.
Before Akins’ presentation, however, Bulloch County Attorney Charles Brown spoke to commissioners about how the gaming machines at locations where beer and wine is sold are definitely a violation of county ordinance and possibly a violation of state law.
Letters warning about possible ordinance violations were issued to store owners and alcohol license holders Jan. 22, reading “It has been reported that gambling is being permitted in some facilities where alcohol is sold, in violation of the county’s ordinance regarding alcoholic beverages.” The letter informed recipients that it served as a warning before “ any enforcement action .... so that you can be sure that your business is in compliance.”
The letter was sent to all alcohol licensees and was not “meant to imply or suggest” that recipients were in noncompliance.
Brown said in the letter that according to Bulloch County Ordinance Sec. 3-8 (b), alcohol license holders cannot permit gambling, betting, illegal lottery, or “other device for the hazarding of any money or other thing of value” on premises where alcohol is sold.
Violations could result in license suspension or revocation, a $1,000 fine and/or 60 days in jail.
A second notice was sent to alcohol license holders Feb. 2, after several store owners and licensees asked about having the video machines in rooms adjacent to the area where alcohol is sold, Brown told commissioners.
In his reply, sent again to all alcohol license holders and store owners, Brown clarified that “licensed premises means not just the room in which alcoholic beverages are sold or served, but also the entire building in which that room is located.”
The only exception, he said in the second letter, is when the room is “located in a hotel, motel of similar facility or in a shopping center.” According to Bulloch County ordinance Sec. 3-2 (a) (9), “only the room and any adjoining storage, office, toilet and other similar rooms constitute the licensed premises.”
Brown warned alcohol license owners that efforts to bypass the ordinance by simply removing machines and relocating them in a separate room of the same building would not be tolerated.
Sheriff’s department inspections
Akins and Bulloch County Chief Investigator Capt. Todd Hutchens both received complaints from citizens about the video machines, Brown said.
An investigation revealed nine convenience stores had the video games and offered merchandise for winnings. After the warning letters, four stores still had the machines and at least one store owner told Hutchens he planned to get rid of the alcohol license and keep the machines.
That may still be a violation of state law, depending upon the machines, Brown said.
Any establishment that pays out more than $5 worth of merchandise is committing a felony violation, according to state law, Brown said.
According to Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O. C. G. A. ) 16-12-21, any pay-outs must be limited to merchandise and must be $5 or less in value, he said. Free replays or merchandise is all that are allowed; cash payouts are illegal.
It is also against the law for stores to pay winners with alcohol or tobacco.
Bulloch County Sheriff Lynn Anderson, who accompanied Akins and Hutchens to the county commission meeting Tuesday, said he knows of one man who spent $400 – “probably his week’s paycheck” playing the video games of chance, then “went to an ATM and got $400 more. That just sends a pure signal to us that he is not after one of those trinkets...”
He said he was at one local establishment and the store was empty, but the parking lot was filled with cars. Patrons were inside a “gift shop” adjacent to the convenience store , where several of the video gaming machines were found in a back room. “I thought it was a Ride Share parking lot at first,” he said. “There were lots of cars in the parking lot but no one inside the store but the clerk.”
After hearing the presentation and Anderson’s remarks, Bulloch County Commissioner Roy Thompson said “I think we all know what’s going on.”
Bulloch County Commissioner Garrett Nevil said “I think it’s pretty clear we don’t approve of it, won’t approve of it and don’t want any part of it .... nip it in the bud.”
Brown said the sheriff’s department will continue to monitor the establishments with alcohol licenses and that county officials will take action if ordinance violations are found.