S.C. Supreme Court, holding all the cards, finds poker players guilty, again

File/Staf The South Carolina Supreme Court reinstated guilty verdicts against five Charleston-area poker players who challenged a state gambling law that is more than two centuries old.

The South Carolina Supreme Court reinstated guilty verdicts against five Charleston-area poker players who challenged a state gambling law that is more than two centuries old.

The case dates to April 2006, when Mount Pleasant police raided a private home on Glencoe Street and cited two dozen people for illegal gambling. Most players pleaded guilty, but five chose to go to court, eventually being convicted.

That decision was overturned by a circuit court judge. State prosecutors appealed, and the high court heard arguments in 2010.

The Supreme Court also found that it is not illegal for people to play a casual game of poker in a private residence, but it is illegal to play in a “house of gaming.” The antiquated statute doesn’t clearly describe the difference between a private residence and a “house of gaming.”

Billy Wilkins, a lawyer who represented the poker players, said the court determined that the Mount Pleasant residence was temporarily being used as a “house of gaming.”

Bob Chimento, one of the five poker players, said he and the others paid the $267 fine years ago. And he is disappointed in the ruling. He had hoped the high court would find the statute, which dates to 1802, unconstitutional.

The statute is anti-card, anti-dice and outlaws such long-forgotten games as roly-poly, rouge et noir and draughts.

“They are cowards,” Chimento said of the justices. “They don’t have the guts to bring the law into the 21st century.” But, he said, he’s happy that people who are not looking to make a profit can play poker in their own homes.

Mark Powell, communications director for Attorney General Alan Wilson, who prosecuted the case, said the high court found that because the definition of a private residence in the statute is so vague, cases about gambling in private residences will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Chief Justice Jean Toal also noted the need for the Legislature to bring the law up to date, he said.

In a prepared statement, Wilson said, “I commend the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Toal for this ruling, as well as recognizing the need to modernize the gaming statue. We should update a 19th-century law to address 21st-century needs. The Attorney General’s Office remains committed to vigorously combating illegal gambling.”

Powell also said the ruling made no distinction between games of chance and games of skill. An earlier argument in the poker players’ case centered on the fact that they were playing Texas Hold ’Em, a game they said required skill.

Powell said the high court ruling makes clear that there is no difference between games of skill and games of chance. It only matters whether people are wagering money.

Chimento said he only hopes all of the players’ efforts make things easier for future poker players. “Poker has been in the closet for so many years,” he said. “It’s time we brought it out of the closet.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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