A Macon County Judge who initially refused to issue a warrant to raid VictoryLand relied too much on Macon County Sheriff David Warren’s opinion on the legality of the machines and overstated both the need for a warrant and its impact on future court cases, according to an opinion of the Alabama Supreme Court.
The unanimous court ruled that video evidence and testimony of gambling activity gathered by undercover officers at VictoryLand presented to Macon County Circuit Court Judge Tom Young was sufficient to order the warrant.
“Without turning a blind eye to that which is depicted in the video and described in the affidavit, a ‘man of reasonable caution’ could reach no conclusion other than that there is a ‘fair probability’ that the machines in question are not the game of bingo and, instead, are slot machines or other gambling devices that are illegal under Alabama law,” the opinion stated.
VictoryLand was shut down on February 19 following a raid by state troopers and officials with the Alabama Attorney General’s office, which seized 1,615 machines and more than $200,000. Attorney General Luther Strange has contended the electronic bingo machines at VictoryLand are slot machines, which are illegal under Alabama law. VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor and his attorneys counter the machines operate differently from slot machines and are permissable.
“This decision should end the debate on whether so-called ‘electronic bingo’ is illegal,’” Strange said in a statment. “It is illegal and local officials cannot create rules to make it legal.”
A message left for attorney Joe Espy, who represents VictoryLand, was not immediately returned Friday afternoon.
Young initially denied the warrant, saying that a Supreme Court ruling known at the Cornerstone case — which creates a six-point criteria for evaluating the legality of bingo games — was not clear enough to determine the legality of the machines. Young also said the presentation conflicted with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, which had certified the machines as legal.
The judge said in a later letter that issuing a warrant would effectively determine the machines’ legality, and said he did not want to be forced to arbitrate a conflict between the sheriff and the Attorney General.
“If the Petitioner in this case succeeds, then it will put (the) judges of this state in the untenable position of determining which constitutional officer they choose to believe,” Young wrote.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the evidence “clearly indicate” Young simply accepted Warren’s opinion of the machines’ legality.
“On such matters, however,the law is well settled: it is a judge’s duty to acknowledge what the law is and to decide how it applies to the facts before him,” the court wrote.
The court also wrote that the Cornerstone case was “clear” in its definition of bingo, and further erred in arguing the warrant would amount to a determination of the machines’ legality.
“The issuance of a search warrant does not constitute a binding adjudication that an offense has occurred or a binding declaration that an activity or item is illegal,” the court wrote. “It is only a determination for purposes of the issuance of the search warrant.”
– posted by Brian Lyman