Civil Liberties

Police Bust Alleged Illegal Gambling Cafe

Small changes to Utah civil forfeiture law could mean big payouts for police.


slot machine
Clarita/Morgue File

A Utah police department has seized approximately $10,000 and 150 gaming machines from three internet cafes, but has not arrested anyone.

The Mouse Pad Cafes in Salt Lake City, Midvale, and Kearns were allegedly running "internet sweepstakes cafes," a creative attempt at getting around the prohibition on gambling. The cafes sell internet time or phone cards and give customers free entries in a sweepstakes. Customers can use their internet time to play games like video poker to find out if they won the sweepstakes. Unlike traditional gambling, the decisions a customer makes while playing do not affect whether or not he wins. Instead, the games are considered an entertaining way of finding out if one of your "free entries" was a winner.

In past cases, the courts have universally considered internet sweepstakes cafes to be gambling, worthy of the same regulations as traditional casinos.  

According to Unified Police Department (UPD) spokesman Lt. Lex Bell, the investigation began when nearby businesses complained about the Midvale and Kearns locations. The problem was not only the illegal activity happening in the cafes themselves, but also increased illegal activity in the surrounding areas, from drug deals to violent crime.

All three locations were raided simultaneously on January 14. Authorities seized the cash and machines, and detained a combined seven employees for questioning. The UPD says the delay in arrests is because it is unclear whether this was a federal or local offense and further investigation of the machines taken will answer that question. The location in Midvale has lost its business license as a result of the raid.

While it is certainly possible and maybe even probable that authorities will arrest those responsible, the police don't necessarily have to return property seized even if they don't make any arrests. Utah law allows local police to keep up to 100 percent of the money taken under such circumstances, and like most states, it does not require a conviction.

In fact, the Utah state legislature unanimously voted to liberalize civil forfeiture laws in 2013. According to the Institute for Justice's Nick Sibilla, writing in Forbes, the vote was far from transparent—sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble called it a "re-codifying of existing law." But this "re-codification" made it optional for governments to repay the prevailing party's legal fees when they lose a civil forfeiture case and placed a cap on how much governments are allowed to pay.

The fate of the $10,000 seized from the Mouse Pad cafes is still undetermined, but either way, citizens should be livid that the legislature acted in such a deceptive manner.