By Seth Daniel
If it looks like a poker machine and acts like a poker machine, then it must not be a poker machine.
New games of chance that resemble video poker machines have popped up at several convenience stores around the city in the last few months, and police say their hands are tied on the matter – for the moment.
Video poker machines have always been a sexy and scandalous topic in Revere, and numerous establishments have run afoul of the law with such machines. Most recently, the former Reardon’s Pub on Broadway was discovered to have been using the video machines illegally, allegedly providing payoffs to customers who gambled on the machines.
The machines – at least for the naïve – are only meant as entertainment, such as a video game would be, and require a license from the city’s License Commission. However, numerous establishments around the city are believed to be using them as, basically, illegal slot machines.
So then, several months back when the new phone card machines popped up at several convenience stores and other locations, police believed they were poker machines.
The machines are actually phone calling card vending machines. However, after the person buys the phone card for $1 – which is good for 30 minutes of long distance in North or South America – they can play a video game on the machine that is called a “Promotional Sweepstakes”. After amassing a certain number of credits on the machine from winning at the video game, players can redeem those credits with the storeowner for cash or merchandise – much like an illegal poker machine operates.
To police, the machines looked like poker machines, and acted like them as well, but it wasn’t that simple.
“It’s an interesting question [about these new machines] because when they first came to my attention – in Broadway Convenience I believe – I did take a look,” said Capt. Michael Murphy.
Murphy said attached to the machines were paperwork that indicated the machines were legal and gave the phone number of an attorney.
That attorney, he said, gave the police ample case law regarding the machines, including a Supreme Judicial Court case from 2007 that supposedly allowed the machines by right, exempting them also from city licenses.
The attorney, Thomas Butters of Boston, represented the owners, known as Kings Pre-Paid Phone Cards LLC. That company is registered by the state under a man named Alfred DeLeon, who has a residence listed in Billerica. The company is listed as having its office in a $2.1 million mansion in Needham, which was the former home of the former vice president of Raytheon, oddly enough.
“These are vending machines,” said Butters. “The difference is we’re selling a product. It’s valuable. When people put money in, they’re buying a phone card. They have the opportunity, if they want to afterward, to play the sweepstakes…The difference is, you’re getting something of value when you put money into the machine.”
Secondly, he said, is that you can play the machine for free, without buying the card, if you fill out some paperwork.
“The second thing that’s different is you can take part in the sweepstakes for free,” he said. “It’s just like Burger King and their free scratch games. If you go and put up a stink, they’ll allow you to participate without buying anything.”
Murphy wasn’t so convinced by Butters’ arguments and smelled something fishy.
“Most people clearly were putting the money in the machine, and if you gathered enough credits, they paid you at the store or you got some sort of voucher,” he said. “It looks like a duck, if you know what I mean…The whole thing seems to hinge on the vague premise it’s a promotional sweepstakes and not a gambling machine.”
Murphy said he reached out to the Lottery Commission, the Attorney General’s Office and the Revere License Commission, none of which were helpful in clarifying whether these machines were legal.
“[The court cases] have made us somewhat leery of acting brashly and going in and confiscating the machines,” said Murphy. “Initially, I was zealous in getting to the bottom of it, and my attentions have been somewhat frustrated…There was really no short resolution to the questions I proposed…Lacking any clear-cut violation that I can reasonably identify, I’ve been sort of sitting on my hands.”
Murphy and Police Chief Terence Reardon have both been monitoring a similar case with King’s in Salisbury, where the police department raided several stores, confiscated several machines and considered filing illegal gambling charges.
If and when that case is resolved, Revere Police said they would act accordingly.
Butters said the case in Salisbury is one of the police not knowing the law.
“The police there actually got a warrant and removed the machines and the money in the machines,” said Butters. “We’re working on that now, and there are no criminal complaints filed. There are two potential problems here. Police may not know the law, and if it looks like a video poker machine, they might think it is one.”
In the meantime, the Revere Police said storeowners shouldn’t rush out to fill their stores with these questionable machines.
“It clearly is an unresolved issue,” said Murphy. “When we do get clarification, we will be prepared to act, and anyone who has them will have them at their own peril.”