Illegal gaming bill clears House committee despite regulatory hiccups

by | Jan 31, 2024

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would elevate penalties for illegal gaming activities to third-degree felonies, despite questions pertaining to regulatory clarity and potential unintended consequences for individuals unknowingly involved in illegal operations.

The Florida House Appropriations Committee approved legislation on Wednesday aimed at increasing penalties for illegal gaming activities.

The bill, carried by Rep. Michelle Salzman, would escalate penalties for the manufacture, sale, and possession of illegal slot machines from misdemeanors to third-degree felonies. The measure also targets activities such as trafficking and transporting individuals for illegal gambling, as well as impersonating personnel or representatives of the Florida Gaming Control Commission, similarly establishing them as third-degree felony offenses.

“These adjustments are essential to send a clear message that our state is committed to eradicating this illicit gaming activity and safeguarding the welfare of its residents,” said Salzman.

During debate, committee members raised questions regarding the bill’s implications for regulatory clarity and managerial responsibility, targeting the measure’s language, which some lawmakers contended could potentially capture individuals unknowingly involved in illegal gaming.

Similarly, Rep. Mike Gottlieb expressed apprehensions about the bill’s language regarding managers of establishments that may host illegal gambling machines. The representative pointed out that some establishments might possess gaming machines in violation of the law, but their lower-level managers might not be aware of this.

Salzman subsequently clarified that the bill targets individuals who are “knowingly and willingly” involved in illegal gaming operations, aiming to alleviate fears about the bill’s alleged overreach.

“The bill specifically says knowingly and willingly,” she said. If you are the manager on duty [at an internet cafe], you are not knowingly and willingly committing that crime, and that is easy to that is that should be easy to prove.”

Public testimony reverberated regulatory concerns, as Jonathan Zachem, representing the Amusement Machine Association of Florida, stood in opposition to the bill over fears that its passage would lead to “unintended consequences.

“Two sections that we’re very concerned about have to do with the application of [the term] manager and how the felony can be applicable to that term,” said Zachem. “For your big actors, I understand where they’re trying to go to, but manager for a location that might have five machines isn’t their principal type of business. It can be a convenience store where on the way to the bathroom, you’ve got a kiosk for lottery and ATM and some machines that are there.”

This scenario, Zachem said, could potentially result in situations where individuals with minimal involvement or understanding of the gaming operations might face felony charges, which he contended was unfair and disproportionate.

Zachem also pointed to ambiguities in how machines are defined and categorized, recounting instances where the legal status of machines fluctuated, citing a case in Tallahassee involving a machine that was initially deemed legal, then illegal, following court decisions and regulatory changes.


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