In 2001, under pressure from police and politicians, then-Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill launched a highly publicized crackdown on illegal eight-liner parlors that had sprung up like ragweed in dingy storefronts in Dallas and suburbs. Toby Shook, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, remembers Hill assembling reporters at a freshly raided Garland gaming room and putting on a show by personally demolishing one of the machines.
That year, Hill’s office charged 91 defendants with either gambling promotion or keeping a gambling place, class A misdemeanors that carry as much as a year in jail. The next year there were 74 prosecutions, slightly fewer but still an order of magnitude more than in 1999 or 2000, when there were one and three, respectively. Even more abundant were the seized eight-liners accumulated by the truckload. “They used to wheel those things in,” Shook recalls. They were stored on the seldom-used eighth floor of the criminal courthouse awaiting destruction.
The eight-liners, Hill and supporters argued, were a scourge. Gambling parlors like the one he peacocked in front of in Garland, often with as many with 40 or 50 machines, had proliferated in Texas since the Legislature in 1995 carved out a “fuzzy animal” loophole to previously straightforward gambling laws. Before, it was illegal in Texas to reward the player of a game of chance with anything of value; after, it became OK to give out prizes of $5 or less. This had the intended impact of legalizing operations like Chuck E. Cheese’s, but it also encouraged enterprising parlor operators to cover themselves with a fig leaf of legality by giving out $5 Walmart gift cards and encouraged slightly more brazen operators to pretend they were handing out prizes when actually they were giving out cash. These places, teeming with cash, tended to be magnets for crime, and the clientele tended to be poor — far too poor to comfortably weather the loss of a few hundred dollars.
But after 2007 especially, the number of eight-liner cases in Dallas dropped precipitously, quickly bottoming out at about a dozen cases each year:
Hill's crackdown might have contributed to some of the drop by convincing would-be operators that operating a game room was too great a risk, but that's too steep a drop to be explained away so easily. Besides, the value of Hill's approach as a deterrent is questionable. A very small handful of the nearly 600 defendants charged with gambling promotion or keeping a gambling place were actually convicted of those crimes over the past 15 years. Typically, defendants in eight-liner cases agree to cede ownership of seized gambling machines in exchange for a lesser charge of gambling, a class C misdemeanor, which carries all the legal heft of a traffic ticket. And the economics of the business suggests that seizing a few eight-liners every now and then will have little impact on the viability of a game room. Each machine costs in the ballpark of $2,000, an investment that can be recouped in a couple of days in a busy game room.
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The steep downward line coincides roughly with Craig Watkins' election as district attorney. It also roughly tracks a surge in online gambling, which likely kept many would-be game room patrons at home. Defense attorney Pete Schulte, himself a former prosecutor, says the priorities of the DA's office shifted away from gambling enforcement. “The return you get prosecuting these really isn't worth the effort,” he says.
It’s a bit more nuanced than that, says Messina Madson, DA Susan Hawk’s top assistant. In an email, she says the decline in prosecutions has several causes, chief among them that there are just fewer game rooms. In addition, she says, the DA’s office no longer has the resources to devote to actively investigate misdemeanors. The office used to employ two or three investigators who focused on gambling halls, but they were eventually assigned to other duties and ultimately left the DA’s office. Other factors include the difficulty of destroying machines, which local landfills have stopped accepting, and shifting methods by police. Dallas PD, for example, pursues forfeiture on its own, processing its petitions through a city magistrate.
“This enables them to move the cases quickly and avoid storage costs and problems associated with the storage of the gambling machines,” Madson writes. “This method hits the gambling promoters economically and avoids a criminal case sitting on a county court docket for a year or more.”
That seems reasonable, if not an effective means of actually stopping illegal gambling. One gambling parlor on Ferguson Road was raided four times over the course of three years until earlier this year when a fifth raid resulted in charges of money laundering and engaging in organized criminal activity against its operator, Thuy “Tweety” Kha. Of course, gambling is one of those vices that, like prostitution, is baked into human DNA. Trying to eliminate it completely is bound to result in an endless and largely fruitless game of whack-a-mole.