Gambling ‘tip’ is chance to educate instead
By KATHY LEIGH BERKOWITZ
There were no arrests made. Instead, local police tried to turn the matter into an educational opportunity for residents about what exactly is illegal and what isn’t when it comes to “informal” gambling.
According to Chief Herbert Gillis, an anonymous person complained to Mayor Jack Van Sickle earlier this year that gambling was occurring at Lake Ashton, and the mayor forwarded this information to the police department.
Van Sickle is a Lake Ashton resident, and supports the Tuesday and Friday evening card games.
Van Sickle said “I think the bingo group does a fantastic job and there are a lot of people in Lake Ashton and in Lake Wales community that come here and enjoy themselves. It’s a good form of entertainment.”
Lake Ashton was not the only place police visited, Gillis noted.
“In addition, we received information that gambling was also occurring at the Tower Lakes clubhouse. It is important to note that our initial inquiry indicated that many persons were simply confused on the law related to games of chance,” Gillis said.
The police then prepared an informational bulletin that was also approved by the Office of the State Attorney.
Gillis noted the bulletin was distributed at community clubhouses where it is available to any group, organization or person who has questions regarding games of chance.
“As always,” Gillis said, “the principal goal is to prevent criminal offenses. As always we work to achieve this goal through education rather than enforcement.”
There are many rules to govern gambling of any kind.
According to Florida law, there is nothing wrong with a person participating in a penny-ante game, which is defined as “a game or series of game and of poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes or mah-jongg” as long as the winnings of any player in a given round, hand or game do not exceed $10 in value.
Games must be held in premises owned or rented by a participant in the game or else held in “common areas” of a condominium, cooperative, residential subdivision or mobile home park that is owned by a participant or the facilities of an organization deemed tax exempt under the Internal Revenue s.501(c)(7) code.
This also applies to a college dormitory or common recreational areas of college dorms, or a community center which is owned by a municipality or county.
Lake Ashton Community Development District board member John Chickness said the community has played Bingo and Texas Hold’em card games for years.
Chickness said at the time the cops showed up, he was not aware that the game was illegal, but added “When the officers came in, they found that there was no money on the table, we play for chips,” he said.
Chickness asked a police officer at Monday morning’s Lake Ashton coffee meeting “are we the only one that’s singled out here?”
He noted that Lake Ashton residents screen all players to ensure they are indeed Lake Ashton residents, adding that many people have tried to come play poker on Friday nights, but are not allowed to play because they are from outside the community.
The law also states that nobody can receive monetary reimbursement for holding a game at their home or property and cannot either directy or indirectly charge admission or any other fee for participation in the game. They cannot advertise the game, nor the time or place of any penny-ante game, or advertise that they are participating in a game.
No one under 18 is allowed to play, and ay debt created or owed as a result of a card game is not legally enforceable.
Non-profit organizations that have a record of their tax-exempt status can hold chance drawings, but must follow the rules governing the conduct and operation of the drawing, according to state statutes.
Any form of disclosure that advertises a drawing has to announce the name of the organization holding the drawing, where it is located, and note the source of the funds used to award cash prizes or to purchase prizes.
Additionally, drawings have to announce when and where cash prizes will be awarded.
Violation of the statutes governing penny-ante games or drawings is a second degree misdemeanor.
Lake Ashton bingo and their non-profit RV organization’s bingo have raised thousands of dollars for local schools.
One recent donation was made to the Hillcrest Elementary School drum line to use for new instruments.
Chief Gillis noted if any evidence of unlawful gambling is uncovered, the police department will take civil and criminal enforcement action to stop it.
He said Officer Joseph VanBlarcom will conduct a community meeting in the future to answer any questions regarding games of chance.
Chickness noted that residents obeyed the law immediately after the clubhouse bulletins were posted.
“The question is what is considered gambling,” Chickness said.
“We know what the law says — we have no chips — so if there’s rumors that there’s playing for money, those are rumors, but no one can prove it,” he added.
Monday night bingo attracts about 50 players, he said.