A guilty verdict in Platte County, located just north of Kansas City, apparently will have consequences in Seymour as it pertains to video-gaming machines.
Early this month, Circuit Judge Thomas Fincham found Integrity Vending LLC guilty of promoting gambling in the first degree in the aforementioned Platte County trial. His sentencing on the case is set for Monday, Nov. 23.
In the interim, Fincham’s ruling has far-reaching effects for the entire state of Missouri.
“Right now, we have a judge’s ruling that these machines are illegal,” Webster County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Berkstresser said last Thursday. “I’m sure this verdict will be appealed, but in the interim, the legal ruling in effect is that they are illegal.”
Currently, Berkstresser said there are four places in the county where he knows video-gaming machines are located.
Two are in Marshfield, while two are in Seymour.
In Seymour, machines are at Seymour Liquor & Tobacco, located at the intersection of North Division and West Steel streets, and at the Hot Spot Food Mart, located on Business 60 (West Clinton Avenue) at the North Frances Street intersection.
The video-gaming machines first appeared at Seymour Liquor & Tobacco earlier this year, then were added at the Hot Spot late this spring.
Are they legal?
“Absolutely not,” Berkstresser said Thursday.
To that end, he said his office soon will let the owners know the machines must be removed immediately.
“This was the (verdict) everyone was waiting on in terms of what’s going to happen,” he explained.
Berkstresser said his intent is to send a letter to each of the four county businesses where the video-gaming machines are located, informing them that the machines are illegal.
What if the machines aren’t removed?
“The letter will explain this ... but the letter will tell these businesses that if the machines aren’t removed, then they will be charged,” Berkstresser said.
“It’s really pretty simple. The (Platte County) ruling is very clear. These machines aren’t legal. Having them in your business is a crime.”
At this summer’s trial in Platte County, prosecutors argued that the video terminals, often seen at convenience stores and gas stations throughout the state, are nothing more than slot machines. Because the games of chance can be easily accessed outside of the confines of a casino, some gambling-addiction advocates argue that makes the machines especially dangerous.
“This could be a groundbreaking ruling for the state of Missouri,” noted Blake Sherer, the assisting prosecuting attorney for Platte County. “There are an estimated 14,000 illegal slot machines in the state, and this industry is worth tens of millions of dollars a year, so this is a big decision for the state of Missouri.”
Berkstresser said the machines prey on a demographic often unable to sustain the financial losses.
“These machines target people who are least able to lose money,” he said.
He told a story about how his office first became aware of the video-gaming machines.
“Initially, our first report was in Fordland at a gas station and convenience store there,” Berkstresser explained.
“I had a city official let me know that people who were playing the machines in this store weren’t paying their water bills. And that’s what often happens.”
Berkstresser said the Fordland business, when contacted by his office, pulled its machines earlier this year.
“Perhaps they are back in that store,” he said. “If they are, then I guess we’ve got fi ve locations instead of four. And if they are (back in the store), then they also will get a letter from my office.”
Seymour Police Chief Steven Pogue said the machines are back in Fordland.
He added that since the issue surrounding the machines became a controversy when first discovered at Seymour Liquor & Tobacco, the Hot Spot brought its machines in. First there were two machines, then three.
“I think there now are five or six of the video machines in the Hot Spot,” Pogue said Thursday night at the regular meeting of the Seymour Board of Aldermen.
“I don’t know exactly how many there are at Seymour Liquor & Tobacco. Obviously, these machines are making money for the people who have them in their stores. That’s why we’re seeing more of them and not less.”
Pogue told city officials that his department is following Berkstresser’s lead, as well as the lead of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which has a role in regulating legal gaming across the state.
“I’ve been in contact with both of them — the prosecutor and the patrol,” Pogue said.
“I’m leaving this in the patrol’s and Ben’s hands. And we will do what’s asked of us in terms of enforcing the decisions that they make.”
Members of the Seymour Board of Aldermen decided to follow Pogue’s lead and take no action other than allowing higher authority determine what comes next.
“Now that we have the ruling from Platte County, action can be taken on our end,” Berkstresser concluded.
“That will occur soon. And if (the county businesses) now refuse to remove (the machines), we will take action.”
Pogue said he expects action to occur.
“I don’t see either of the businesses here in Seymour removing their machines,” he told the aldermen.
“What I do expect to see is Ben and the patrol having to take action to make them remove the machines. I don’t see this being an easy process here.”