A Sumter Internet sweepstakes operator has filed a federal lawsuit against the states top law enforcement officer and the Sumter County sheriff, saying his constitutional rights were violated when those agencies raided and shut down his business.
The suit cites the 1st and 14th amendments, which protect free speech and due process and equal protection under the law.
The lawsuit will be another legal test in the ongoing clash between people who operate the new Internet sweepstakes centers and public officials who maintain they are illegal. And the lawsuit pits State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel against his predecessor, Reggie Lloyd, the agencys former director, whos working on behalf of the business owner.
Internet sweepstakes cafes have been popping up across the state this year as operators challenge South Carolinas gambling laws, but most of the cases have been fought at the magistrate level of state courts. Lloyd said he brought the federal challenge because he is seeking a definitive ruling on the issue. The constitutional arguments over Internet sweepstakes also have been brought in Florida, Ohio and Arkansas, he said.
At the Internet sweepstakes cafes, or centers, customers buy phone cards or Internet time and are given chances to win cash by playing sweepstakes games, which typically are computerized slots or poker.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, stems from a July 13 raid on Gamecock Sweepstakes #2, an Internet cafe owned by Terry Eddie Land, 49. Land was charged with operating an illegal gambling house, and officers seized 40 computers from the business, which is on U.S. 378 near Shaw Air Force Base. The raid forced Land to shutter his other business, Gamecock Sweepstakes #1 on Guinard Drive in Sumter.
Land said Tuesday that there is no definitive legal ruling in South Carolina that makes Internet sweepstakes games illegal. Therefore, he has a right to run the businesses, especially after paying $20,000 for licenses to operate in Sumter County.
They shouldnt be coming in there and locking up people if they dont know its illegal, Land said. Theyre just throwing stones.
The lawsuit names Keel, Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis and the state as defendants.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilsons office issued a statement vowing to defend the South Carolina Constitution and laws that prohibit internet sweepstakes games, games of chance or any other variation of video poker."
Keels office also pledged to continue enforcing the law. Previously, Keel has said the Internet sweepstakes games are illegal and he intends to continue seizing machines and arresting operators.
Dennis could not be reached for comment.
In the lawsuit, Lloyd argues on behalf of Land that the games do not violate the states gambling laws because customers are not paying money to play the games. Instead, they are buying time to use an Internet service and are eligible to play a game.
Youve already paid for a product and youre given a entry into the promotional contest, Lloyd said during an interview. But you dont wager anything on that entry, and youre not able to affect the outcome.
Law enforcement cant ban the Internet sweepstakes games because they have casino themes, Lloyd said. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that video imagery is protected speech.
These guys are really after these places that are simulating casino type themes, Lloyd said.
The suit also maintains that the arrest and seizure violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The state and law enforcement are applying arbitrary and undefined standards to enforce gambling laws. And some magistrates and state courts have ruled that the businesses are legal, the suit said.
Lands sweepstakes center is not the first to be raided by SLED and a county sheriff.
Last month, deputies from the Richland and Lexington county sheriffs departments joined SLED on raids. Lloyd also represents the owner cited in a raid at Cafe 21 on Sparkleberry Lane Extension in northeast Richland, but that client was not included in the suit filed this week.
Still, Lloyd said he expects others to join his lawsuit or to file similar complaints in federal court.
Lloyd and Land are asking for a jury to award an unspecified amount in damages for the loss of business. And Land said he hopes a punitive judgment is given to punish law enforcement that has been too aggressive.
We need to .... teach them that they cant come and lock people up over something thats not illegal, Land said. Theyve got my name all over the papers and making me look bad.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.