Supreme Court opens door for VictoryLand raid

Published 1:13 am Saturday, September 4, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Armed with a new court ruling Friday, the governor’s task force on illegal gambling raised the prospect of a raid at the VictoryLand casino, which has closed its doors and sealed its electronic bingo machines from public view.

Task force commander John Tyson said he would not comment on the timing of any future law enforcement action against VictoryLand. But, he said, “be assured we are going to enforce the law.”

VictoryLand attorney Mark White said that the 6,000 bingo machines now walled off from public view are considered private property and that any raid would be improper without Tyson obtaining a search warrant.

“Anyone who enters our private property will be subject to arrest,” White said.

Tyson maintains the casino’s electronic bingo machines are illegal slots and subject to law enforcement action.

“It is illegal to possess slot machines in Alabama, whether they are behind a wall or not,” he said.

The ruling Tyson won Friday was mostly technical and expected: The Alabama Supreme Court unanimously rejected a request by Macon County officials to reconsider its July 30 order that allowed the governor’s task force to operate in Macon County. Any action by the task force had been on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision Friday on the rehearing request.

“Law enforcement is clear to operate in Macon County,” Tyson said after the latest ruling.

Macon County’s sheriff, who regulates bingo in the county, and other county officials had contended the task force was trying to usurp their authority. They had a judge’s order backing up their view until the Supreme Court sided with the governor’s task force.

The sheriff’s attorney, James Anderson, said there is nothing for the task force to raid because VictoryLand’s casino has been closed since Aug. 9 and the machines that once made it the state’s largest casino are no longer on public view.

VictoryLand’s live dog races and simulcast dog and horse races are the only gambling being operated at the sprawling complex 15 miles east of Montgomery on Interstate 85. Its games, along with its restaurants and luxury hotel, once attracted thousands of gamblers each day, including many from neighboring Georgia, but the crowds have dwindled with the casino shuttered.

All the state’s privately operated electronic bingo casinos are closed either because of raids or the threat of raids by law enforcement, and the task force has seized machines from large casinos in Lowndes and Greene counties.

Three casinos run by the Poarch Creek Indians remain open in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery, but they are under federal regulation rather than state regulation.

In the rehearing request to the Supreme Court, Macon County officials had noted that Tuscaloosa businessman Stan Pate, a frequent critic of Gov. Bob Riley, had alleged that the governor or his staff had talked to the court about moving the VictoryLand case from one justice to another and had received notice that the decision would be released July 30.

The Alabama Supreme Court recently asked retired Supreme Court Justice Gorman Houston to investigate those allegations. Houston said Friday the court asked him to report his findings Sept. 15, but he hopes to complete his report before then. He said he could not discuss any findings before presenting them to the court.

In its order Friday, the Supreme Court said the VictoryLand case was reassigned from Justice Patti Smith to Justice Glenn Murdock in May because Murdock was handling a similar electronic bingo case involving the closed White Hall Entertainment Center in Lowndes County. The court said the reassignment was “in the interest of judicial economy.”

“It establishes conclusively the governor and the governor’s staff had nothing at all to do with it,” Tyson said.

But VictoryLand’s attorney said the court’s statement raised more questions than it answered because the alleged leaks began after the reassignment to Murdock.

Friday’s decision doesn’t end the legal wrangling over VictoryLand. A federal court suit is pending that accuses the governor’s task force of violating the voting rights of Macon County citizens who voted to allow bingo in the county.

Riley and his task force have not challenged traditional paper bingo games in any county — only the electronic games.