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Emily D. Swoboda
 

Wash. Prohibition Bill Could Lose Some of Its Bite

31 January 2007

A Washington state legislator says in-home recreational Internet gambling should not be a felony, and he is making sure the law agrees with him.


"I'm culpable for voting for a bill that I did not understand, as did I think 97 other members of the House of Representatives. A citizen legislature makes mistakes, and this is one of them. I believe it is our duty to correct them."
-Rep. Chris Strow

Senate Bill 6613, enacted in June 2006, extended the state's Gambling Act of 1973--which, like the federal Wire Act of 1961, prohibits making wagers over phone lines--by prohibiting gambling that uses new technologies such as the Internet. Unlike the Wire Act, which contains concise language related to betting on events (sports betting), the amended Washington law makes all forms of electronic gambling illegal.

Violating the Gambling Act was originally considered a gross misdemeanor, but SB 6613 included an amendment increasing the punishment to a Class C felony, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both. The law made no distinction between the casual bettor and the gambling enterprise.

Rep. Chris Strow wants to clearly make that distinction and fix a mistake he feels was made last year. So, he introduced on Jan. 23 House Bill 1243, which would provide an affirmative defense for someone found in violation the Gambling Act.

"As long as you show that you were gambling for recreational purposes, including if you were using money, but not running a business, and you were doing it in your primary domicile, the felony charge would not be valid," Strow explained. "The distinction is that people cannot run a for-profit site, which does not mean people cannot gamble for money on the Internet; it means they cannot run their own gambling Web site."

He said the reason for going that route as opposed to stripping the felony language altogether is that it still leaves some enforcement tools to go after some other elements in the gambling world unrelated to Internet gambling, which was the actual driver behind the Class C felony.

Strow voted in favor of SB 6613, but he said he was unaware of the Class C felony language in the bill.

"Nobody in the House of Representatives knew that the felony language was in there," Strow said. "It slipped in over on the Senate side."

He explained that the felony language was added in after it passed in the House.

"Regardless of this, what was presented to us was a bill that was to bring the state's gambling policies in line with federal rules," Strow said. "Now, for good or for bad we took it at face value."

But, he said when he discovered he had not been made aware of the true nature of the legislation, he began to question the felony component of the law.

"When I believed that we had not been fully disclosed to on this issue and I started talking to individual constituents about this, I just told them [Senate], 'There is absolutely no reason you should be making Internet gaming--particularly if you're doing it for recreational purposes from your own home--a felony, or, frankly, a gross misdemeanor.' There's a ludicrous lack of respect in doing what we did."

After SB 6613 passed Alison R. Grazzini, legislative assistant to the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Margarita Prentice, acknowledged that enforcing the law would be a challenge. Some theorized the state would go after credit card companies and Internet service providers. Grazzini said that making the penalty more severe could deter Washington residents from partaking in online gambling services.

Strow confirmed, however, that the Gambling Commission has subsequently said that the law is unenforceable.

Strow regrets that last year's legislation and the House's misunderstanding of the bill have turned into much unintended consequences and a lack of due diligence and open discussion.

"I'm culpable for voting for a bill that I did not understand, as did I think 97 other members of the House of Representatives," Strow said. "A citizen legislature makes mistakes, and this is one of them. I believe it is our duty to correct them."

HB 1243 is awaiting a hearing in the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

Click here to view HB 1243.

Wash. Prohibition Bill Could Lose Some of Its Bite is republished from iGamingNews.com.
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda