By Ed Brock
As far as Billy Powell knows the video game machines in his Jonesboro convenience store are perfectly legal.
They have a license from the Georgia Department of Revenue, none of the machines sitting in his 1-Stop Food Store are video poker games and he says he doesn't pay cash prizes to the winners, so Powell said he thinks they're fine.
But law enforcement officials in Clayton County say that, under Georgia's current law, just owning the machines is a crime and, if the law doesn't change, they plan to crack down on them.
"At some point in time, whether they're paying cash or not, they're going to have to get rid of them," Clayton County Sheriff Stanley Tuggle said.
Under Georgia Code Section 16-12-20, a "gambling device" is defined as "any contrivance which for a consideration affords the player an opportunity to obtain money or other thing of value, the award of which is determined by chance even though accompanied by
The law specifically mentions "matchup or lineup" games in which two or more symbols, numerals or icons align for a win, as well as the more commonly known video poker or blackjack machines.
After the law was originally passed in 2002 it was temporarily overturned by Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger later that same year but then reinstated.
Currently there is an effort in the Georgia General Assembly to change the law, Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller said, but if that challenge fails then the crackdown will begin.
"We're taking the position that all the machines are illegal," Keller said.
Up until now Tuggle's department has focused mainly on seizing machines from establishments they know are paying cash awards to winners. About 400 confiscated machines from pending cases are crammed into two rooms at the old Clayton County jail in Lovejoy, their screens dark and dusty and marked by evidence tags.
If and when the crackdown begins, Tuggle said, his department would first send written notice to anybody known to have such a machine on their property warning them to dispose of the machines. Then Tuggle's deputies will begin confiscating the machines.
Like Powell, many business owners that have the machines on their property have been told they are legal, Tuggle said. Also like Powell, a Jonesboro gas station manager who did not want to comment about the machines did point to the Department of Revenue permit as proof that the machine was legal.
"We do license amusement machines," Department of Revenue spokesman Charles Willey said. "But we don't do a physical investigation of the machines."
Willey said that the licensing process also includes pinball machines, arcade video games and "claw machines" in which a mechanical arm controlled by the player picks up small prizes and drops them into a chute.
The gas station manager who did not want to comment deferred that comment to the company that has its telephone number on the machines, All Star Inc. When contacted at that number a man who identified himself only as "Jerome" said all of the machines were legal.
Powell said he does not own or lease the machines in his store but keeps them there on a profit-sharing basis with the company that owns them. He said he awards the winner with free gasoline or in store coupons.
If notified that the machines must go, Powell said, he would get rid of them. But he does question why the machines are illegal but the lottery is not.
"It all comes down to money," Powell said. "If the state was getting more of a share there'd be no trouble."