By: Jacob Newton

Playing casino style slot machines in Virginia may soon become a reality. House Bill 4 Lottery Board; regulation of casino gaming (the “Bill”), proposes an amendment to the Code of Virginia, which would expand gambling and gaming rights throughout the Commonwealth to include classic slot machine casino gambling.[1] The Bill will give the power to grant gambling to localities and Virginians across the Commonwealth will get the chance to vote if they want casino gambling inside local communities.[2] The Bill is still subject to the Governor’s approval, but Virginia lawmakers have given approval to the Bill to allow voters in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums later this year to approve casinos.[3] The Governor has until 11:59 p.m., April 11, 2020 to take action on the Bill.[4]

Lawmakers are conflicted by the desire to keep the revenue of Virginian gamblers inside the state’s economy,[5] and the negative morality associated with gambling. Due to this conflict, they have been continuously making exceptions to Virginia Code § 18.2-326, the statute penalizing illegal gambling.[6] Even though lawmakers have been making exceptions to the general rule against gambling, they have been reluctant to legalize the most common type of gambling, the casino style slot machine[7]

Gambling machines that look and operate similar to the classic casino style slot machine are common within Virginia, even though the casino style slot machine is currently illegal in within the state’s borders.[8] The legality of these casino-like slot machines are possible because the exceptions to Virginia Code § 18.2-326 have been expanded or exploited to make the machines fit under specific exceptions.[9] The advancement of technology has transformed the gambling industry and created gray areas in need of defining.[10] One prevalent example of these exceptions to Virginia Code § 18.2-326 is Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.15 (the charitable gaming exception).

The charitable gaming exception was legalized in 1973, making it the earliest exception to the criminality imposed upon gambling in Virginia.[11] It provides charitable gaming shall be permitted in the Commonwealth as a means of funding qualified organizations.[12] A qualified “organization” is defined by the statute as a volunteer emergency services organization operated exclusively for religious, charitable, community or educational purposes; athletic association or booster club; veterans; fraternal association or corporation operating under the lodge system; local chamber of commerce; or any other nonprofit organization that raises funds by conducting raffles that generate annual gross receipts of $40,000 or less, provided such gross receipts from the raffle, less expenses and prizes, are used exclusively for charitable, educational, religious or community purposes.[13] The list of qualified organizations is implicitly an exhaustive list meant to target specific types of organizations.

The types of gambling allowed under the exception permits qualified organizations to conduct raffles, bingo, network bingo, and instant bingo games.[14] Instant bingo closely resembles the classic slot machine and is provided for by statute.[15] Electronic pull-tabs are an electronic version of a single instant bingo card or pull-tab. The electronic pull-tab is a predetermined game outcome in electronic form, distributed on-demand from a finite number of game outcomes by a distributed pull-tab system.[16] The specifics of the machines are highly regulated by the charitable gaming board, but the machines still resemble a slightly watered down version of a classic slot machine because they operate at the press of a button and display symbols in the form of a crisscross.[17]

Some companies are charging potential gamblers a nominal lifetime membership fee to use the electronic pull tab machines and claiming to fall under the lodge system definition of qualifying organizations.[18] Specific companies are not listed because they do not advertise this on any platform. Companies using this method have essentially placed themselves in this category already carved out by the charitable gaming statute, and the Charitable Gaming Board has yet to condemn or approve this method. This is just one example of a gray area surrounding the legal boundaries of gambling in Virginia.

The legislative trend is moving toward complete legalization of casino slot style gambling in Virginia. However, “dancing” around compete legalization puts stress on local government and law enforcement to maintain the gray boundaries of the expanding amount of exceptions. If the Governor signs House Bill 4 Lottery Board; regulation of casino gaming, then Virginia will be one step closer to alleviating the pressure of maintaining those boundaries.

[1] Va H.R. 4, 1127 Leg. Session (2020).

[2] See id.

[3] See Associate Press, Virginia to expand gambling options, legalize casinos, WHSV 3 (Mar. 08, 2020, 4:48 PM), https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Virginia-to-expand-gambling-options-legalize-casinos-568611311.html

[4] See HB 4 Lottery Board; regulation and control of casino gaming, Virginia’s Legislative Information System (last visited Oct. 6, 2008), https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+sum+HB4.

[5] See Gregory S. Schneider, ‘Boring’ no more? Virginia has already begun embracing casino-style gaming, Wash. Post (July 7, 2019, 1:00 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-news/boring-no-more-virginia-has-already-begun-embracing-casino-style-gaming/2019/07/07/79477f62-9db1-11e9-85d6-5211733f92c7_story.html.

[6] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.15; Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-334.3; Va. Code Ann.§ 59.1-364.

[7] Riverboat Gaming Commission with riverboat gaming, Va H.R. 2400, 1110 Leg. Session (1995).

[8] See generally House Bill 1609 (describing the functions of the historic horse racing machines); 11 Va. Admin. Code § 15-40-410 (2019) (describing electronic pull-tab bingo).

[9] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.15; Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-334.3; Va. Code Ann.§ 59.1-364.

[10] See IN THIS ISSUE: CULTURAL PRODUCTION IN A DIGITAL AGE: Digital Gambling: The Coincidence of Desire and Design, 597 Annals 65.

[11] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.15.

[12] See id.

[13] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.16.

[14] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.22.

[15] See id.

[16] See 11 Va. Admin. Code § 15-40-410 (2019).

[17] See id.

[18] See Va. Code Ann.§ 18.2-340.16.

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