HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's attorney general said Monday raiding illegal gambling halls is not enough to keep them closed. He is asking the Legislature to increase the penalties to make the big profits less attractive.
Current law makes possession of an illegal gambling machine a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. Attorney General Luther Strange said he will ask the Legislature next month to increase the penalty to a felony carrying one to 10 years in prison.
"There is so much money involved in these gambling operations and the penalties are so small compared to the amount of money that can be made, there is a real incentive for these people to just put these fly-by-night facilities up. ... They operate until they are shut down. They face a misdemeanor charge — a slap on the wrist," he said in an interview.
The Republican attorney general was in Hoover on Monday to talk with members of the House and Senate judiciaries committees about his goals for the legislative session starting Feb. 5.
Gov. Robert Bentley turned over the governor's gambling task force to Strange in 2011. Since then, Strange has organized raids on gambling halls, including Center Stage in Dothan and Southern Star in White Hall. The operators maintained they had legal electronic bingo, but Strange labeled them illegal. Center Stage opened in what used to be Country Crossing casino, which was forced to close in 2010. Southern Star opened after a nearby casino, White Hall Entertainment Center, was raided and closed.
In both cases, Strange's staff seized machines and cash, including $283,657 in Dothan, but they made no arrests. With the current law, going after the machines and money is more of a deterrent than a short jail sentence, he said.
"If we had the ability to charge them with a felony, I think we'd put an end to this foolishness," Strange said.
Strange tried to get the Legislature to increase the penalties for possessing illegal gambling machines in 2011 and 2012 without success.
"There are enough people in the Legislature who have enough interest in maintaining facilities in their jurisdictions that they are not interested in increasing the penalties. It's unfortunate," the attorney general said.
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Bryan Taylor of Prattville, sponsored Strange's legislation. He said the Senate never took up the bill last year because some opponents threatened to block other bills if the gambling legislation came up for debate.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Cam Ward of Alabaster, said some legislators want the state courts to issue a definitive ruling on what constitutes an illegal machine before they change any penalties.
"Right now, there is not enough clarity about what is an illegal machine and what's not," he said.
Before talking to the legislators, the attorney general told reporters that he won't propose any legislation stemming from the mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut, but is ready to help legislators and the governor if they want to develop legislation.
"I will work with the Legislature to make sure we protect our Second Amendment rights, but we also want to protect our students and citizens," he said.
Some legislators have talked about possibly arming school employees who go through special training. "Law enforcement needs to study that suggestion carefully before we go down that path," Strange said.