A Token Dispute

Are slot machines child's play or illegal gambling? Hollywood authorities take a close look at one game room.

Standing in the center of a howling nightmare of blinking lights, screaming sirens, roaring animals, revving engines, blaring calliopes, and piercing whistles, the two middle-aged men looked a little out of place in their conservative business suits and power ties.

They felt that way, too. Neither Hollywood City Attorney Jamie Cole nor Hollywood City Commissioner John Coleman would normally admit to spending a weekday afternoon parked in front of a slot machine at The Game Room amusement arcade at Oceanwalk Mall. But this was different. This was business. City business.

"We walked in. We looked around. We bought about $5 worth of tokens, and we started playing," Coleman recalls. By the time their pool of mad money was halfway gone, they'd won a jackpot -- $10 or so worth of tokens they could use to play other arcade games or trade in for prizes. "I let Jamie keep it." Coleman says. "He walked out of there with his pockets full."

That's not all that Cole walked out of there with. Because of his hour of playing the slots at Oceanwalk, Cole now is of the opinion that "there's a very good chance" the machines are illegal. And, in fact, Coleman goes even further: "I don't see how anyone can possibly argue that those machines are not illegal."

It isn't that the arcade -- which came under new management in March, at which time the slot machines were installed -- has turned itself into a state-of-the-art casino. If anything, in fact, its slot machines appear to be a couple generations out of date -- scratched-up veterans of the gambling world, with old-style buttons and handles and see-through plastic windows instead of the touch-screen technology found in most casinos nowadays.

According to Florida Assistant Attorney General Charles Fahlbusch, there are two significant questions in assessing the legality of an arcade slot machine: whether the machine requires an "application of skill" by the user and whether its payoff exceeds the legal limits per game.

As Cole and Coleman discovered on their trip to The Game Room, the machines there don't require any skill at all -- merely an ability to pull the handle on the side of the machine. Although each machine features a row of buttons underneath the spinning wheels, the buttons don't appear to serve any function. To operate the machines, all you do is drop in your token (a dollar gets you four) and pull the handle. The wheels will spin, the wheels will stop, and either you'll hear the sound of tokens clinking into the metal bottom tray or you won't.

"That's how Jamie won his jackpot," Coleman says. "He just pulled the handle and boom, out came this shower of gold." Cole confirms Coleman's memory.

Although Coleman is passionately convinced that these machines are flatly illegal, Maj. Ron Pagano of the Hollywood Police Department disagrees. On August 3, Pagano deployed two detectives to Oceanwalk Mall to investigate Coleman's complaints that the arcade was indeed operating illegal slot machines.

In a memo he sent to Hollywood City Manager Samuel A. Finz the next day, Pagano wrote that "the machines in question do not violate any gambling law or regulation. The machine 'pay-off' is with tokens which cannot be exchanged for money." Pagano also attached a copy of a 1996 legal opinion dealing with a similar issue that had come up with alleged gambling machines in other amusement arcades.

In that memo police legal advisor Joel D. Cantor had written that because an arcade gaming machine "offers tickets or coupons as winnings which may be exchanged for merchandise only," such a machine was "clearly omitted from the definition of a gambling machine or device and not in violation of any criminal statute."

In an interview last week, however, Cantor said he wouldn't feel comfortable applying his 1996 memo to the token-using slot machines in The Game Room. In that memo, he now says, "I was talking about a different type of machine and dealing with different issues." (Pagano was busy dealing with hurricane-related issues last week and was unavailable for comment.)

In any case it doesn't appear that members of the Hollywood Police Department are likely to arrest anyone or seize machines anytime soon. As Cantor explained, "This seems to be a gray area of the law." And in fact Cole agrees, explaining that he would like to sound out his city commission before doing anything rash. "I'd also like to get an advisory opinion from the attorney general's office," he says.

Fahlbusch isn't sure what that would accomplish. "Why don't they just make some arrests and seize some machines?" he asks. But Cole and Cantor both say they intend to proceed with caution. For one thing The Game Room is by no means the only arcade in Florida -- or even the only local arcade -- to use such machines. The Grand Prix Golf-O-Rama arcade in Dania, for instance, features a roomful of old slot machines that appear to be carbon copies of the machines found in Oceanwalk Mall.

Cole also says he wants to wait until another local court case is resolved. That case, which has been winding its way through the courts for four years now, stemmed from a raid in which agents from the Florida Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms seized a number of gambling machines from an array of Broward County bars and nightclubs. In that case the legal issue in question is whether the gaming machines required any skill on a player's part or operated purely on chance.

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