Gaming ordinance enforcement begins in earnest

Gaming ordinance enforcement begins in earnest

Game room operators and eight-liner enthusiasts, beware! Code enforcers from various city departments and entities could be coming to shut down gaming sites not in compliance with rules mandated by Beaumont’s new gaming ordinance.

According to the city, the gaming ordinance regulates legitimate gaming businesses through licensing and permits, and police say it also serves as a tool in the fight against illegal gambling in the city, allowing police officers and other code enforcers access to gaming sites they were not previously afforded. No longer can game room proprietors hide behind locked doors; with the ordinance in effect, they must open their doors for inspection during business hours and generally when anyone is present at the business.

While the ordinance passed in June and took effect Aug. 1, enforcers’ hands were tied due to an ongoing investigation into illegal gambling that had been going on for months prior to the effective date of the ordinance. But now, says Beaumont Police Department Sgt. Mike Custer of the Special Assignments Unit (SAU), all bets are off for gaming sites operating outside legal bounds.

“We’ve been preparing for this, and now, it’s go time,” Custer said.

He and a team of enforcers met Wednesday, Nov. 12, to discuss a crackdown on businesses that have failed to comply with the relatively new ordinance. Custer made a presentation highlighting pertinent data from the ordinance and instructing agents of the various divisions on what each of their roles would be in the upcoming enforcement effort. Attendees included Director Chris Boone and other employees of the city’s code enforcement department, BPD Lt. Jason Plunkett of SAU, Captain Brad Pennison of Beaumont Fire Rescue, building code staff, community development personnel and Senior Assistant City Attorney Sharae Reed.

The ordinance stipulates “gaming sites,” locations with one or more “gaming machines,” also known as amusement redemption machines or 8-liners, must apply for a gaming site permit with the city and submit a $50 processing fee for locations with five or fewer machines, or $100 for locations with six or more gaming machines. Gaming sites must be designated as such with a sign issued by the city that must be displayed in the front of the establishment. City licensing decals must be displayed on every machine, along with mandatory Mylar stickers from the state comptroller. Decal stickers may not be transferred from machine to machine, and are provided to gaming site operators once their gaming site permit applications are approved. Initially, according to information presented to City Council in June, each sticker would cost $15, but now the stickers are provided with the gaming site permit at no additional charge to the operator. Replacements are $15. Gaming sites are also subject to any and all city codes and ordinances, and of course, state and federal laws.

Offenses associated with gaming sites include operating an unlicensed gaming site, failure to display gaming site permits, failure to display required signage, failure to maintain gaming machine inventory, possession of an unregistered gaming machine, unlawful use of a gaming decal, inspection refusal, operating during prohibited hours, and for place and manner of operation, the last being a kind of catch-all of any offenses not listed such as curfew violations, fire code violations, and others.

Captain Pennison said fire code inspectors generally give warnings on minor infractions, alerting operators to small problems and giving them time to correct such problems before taking actions against them, such as citing them. He said for more serious, potential life safety hazards, there would be no warning.

“The locking of the doors is the biggest one,” Reed said, regarding potential fire code violations.

Repetition of even minor violations would also constitute a major violation, possibly necessitating action against the sites in relation to “nuisance abatement,” said Custer.

According to Custer, the gaming site operators have had plenty of time and plenty of warning that new rules are in place, and now violators will be subject to the full force of the law, including having potential fines levied against them, the sealing of machines making them inoperable, revocation of gaming site licenses effectively terminating gaming at those locations, and even felony charges if they have provided false information on their applications or certificates of occupancy.

Section 6.10.034 (d) of the city ordinance reads, “Any false statement made by an applicant on the application shall subject the permit to immediate suspension pending revocation and the applicant may be prosecuted as a violation of 37.10 of the Texas Penal Code (tampering with governmental records), a third degree felony.”

Custer said one woman already faces two felony tampering charges because her name was listed on the gaming site permit application as the owner of two businesses that were recently targeted in an illegal gambling raid Oct. 29. Custer said the woman was not the true owner of the businesses, which allegedly belonged to 41-year-old Tu Anh-Thi Tran, who was incidentally picked up by police at her residence on South Major Drive in Beaumont for questioning the night of the illegal gambling raid.

Custer and Reed both said that the ordinance would likely require some tweaking in the future, after it has been tried and any issues addressed. For example, the minimal permitting fee may need to be adjusted upwardly if costs of enforcement exceed the amount collected through permitting fees. Another change could be charging per decal, something included in a preliminary draft of the ordinance but later removed.

Reed said although there is heavy opposition from lobbyists, she believes the ordinance would hold against any scrutiny or legal push.

“They have a very strong lobby, but I think our ordinance will stand up to a constitutional challenge.”

“Gaming sites are on notice to comply,” said Custer. ‘We are going to be filing charges against any that are noncompliant.”

He said multiple charges could be levied against rule-breakers and added that the charges compound on a daily basis.

He said enforcement of the ordinance is imperative to the safety, health and welfare of Beaumont residents, and that he is hopeful the ordinance will get rid of illegitimate business, especially those exploiting Beaumont’s most vulnerable citizens through illegal gambling.

“Our overall objective is to make sure this city is as safe as possible,” Custer asserted. “This is something we can control. I really think we are going to make a difference here.”