Friday, May 04, 2007

Playing Games Illegal in South Carolina

For some time state Rep. Wallace Scarborough, R-Charleston has been trying to add an exception to Title 16, Chapter 19 of the South Carolina Code of Laws to allow for charity Poker tournaments. According to the Post and Courier, it seems that his plan has run into a little snag. It appears that Title 16, Chapter 19 makes the playing of any game that uses dice or cards an illegal act.

When I first read the Post and Courier article I giggled. I assumed that the article was a delayed April Fool's Day joke, and the snarky tone of the article contributed to my assumption. The author of the article couldn't refrain from inserting as many game names as possible into the piece, which detracted from the article's credibility. Sadly, the fact is that the law is pretty clear. In fact, "dice and cards" aren't the only thing that makes a game illegal. Let's have a look at the law:

SECTION 16-19-40. Unlawful games and betting.

If any person shall play at any tavern, inn, store for the retailing of spirituous liquors or in any house used as a place of gaming, barn, kitchen, stable or other outhouse, street, highway, open wood, race field or open place at (a) any game with cards or dice, (b) any gaming table, commonly called A, B, C, or E, O, or any gaming table known or distinguished by any other letters or by any figures, (c) any roley-poley table, (d) rouge et noir, (e) any faro bank (f) any other table or bank of the same or the like kind under any denomination whatsoever or (g) any machine or device licensed pursuant to Section 12-21-2720 and used for gambling purposes, except the games of billiards, bowls, backgammon, chess, draughts, or whist when there is no betting on any such game of billiards, bowls, backgammon, chess, draughts, or whist or shall bet on the sides or hands of such as do game, upon being convicted thereof, before any magistrate, shall be imprisoned for a period of not over thirty days or fined not over one hundred dollars, and every person so keeping such tavern, inn, retail store, public place, or house used as a place for gaming or such other house shall, upon being convicted thereof, upon indictment, be imprisoned for a period not exceeding twelve months and forfeit a sum not exceeding two thousand dollars, for each and every offense.

I'm going to excerpt portions, hopefully without changing meaning, which make this law absurd.

If any person shall any house used as a place of gaming...any game with cards or dice,...except the games of billiards, bowls, backgammon, chess, draughts, or whist when there is no betting...upon being convicted thereof, before any magistrate, shall be imprisoned for a period of not over thirty days or fined not over one hundred dollars

So it is illegal to play most games that exist on the market today without technically breaking this law. In the Post and Courier article the Attorney General's office is quoted as saying, "Our research and reading of the law suggests that Candyland, for the moment, is safe in South Carolina," but this is actually an inaccurate statement. Given that Candyland, traditionally, uses cards to determine movement, it violates the wording of the law. The travel version of Candyland with its spinner based movement might be legal, but for one clarification in the law. You will notice that the law contains a list of games that are excepted from punishment. These games include draughts (checkers), chess, and billiards. Correct me if I am wrong, but checkers, chess, and billiards all lack dice or cards in game play. It should also be added that none of those three could be considered "games of chance" as they are either "perfect knowledge" or a "dexterity based" games. By including examples of games to exclude from conviction games which contain neither dice nor cards, the law broadens the definition of gaming.

To be honest, it is pretty clear that the law is intended to exclude games played for the purpose of betting, but the language is vague enough to allow for a broad reading. And to be fair, it is within the "proper" scope of police powers to exclude any kind of gambling, regardless of the game being used as the basis for betting. But given that the law makes it clear that chess, checkers, and billiards are okay to play when there is no betting, but doesn't exclude the play of any game so long as there is no betting involved, this is a poorly written law. It is an example of how legislatures don't often think when they create legislation.

The law could have been simple. Instead, it is vague and unenforceable as written.

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