Thirty Years in Prison For Saving Seats?
Copyright December 21, 1997 By I. Nelson Rose All Rights Reserved

  According to the Florida Attorney General, saving seats in a bingo hall can get you up to 30 years in prison. 

     Plus a $10,000 fine.  Plus being labeled a racketeer.  Plus possibly losing your house and everything else you own.

     The State is not actually going after organized seat-savers, at the moment.  But prosecutors are trying to use Florida's racketeering statutes to put away commercial bingo operators.  The A.G.'s office is taking the position that an organization which runs a bingo hall and repeatedly violates any part of the bingo statute can be charged with racketeering, whether the crime is stealing money or wrongfully saving seats.

     Two separate Florida Courts of Appeal have looked at the issue of whether bingo operators who break the state's bingo laws fall under the racketeering statutes.  Both Courts rejected the A.G.'s position.  But one Court then held that the bingo operators might indeed be racketeers anyway.

     The situation is such a mess that one of the Courts of Appeal took the unusual step of asking the Florida Supreme Court to decide this "question of great importance." To show how important the issue is, the Court stated it in all caps


     The legal issue is like a Rube Goldberg machine.  Only instead of an alarm clock going off, waking a cat, which chases a canary, which pulls a string, turning on a coffee pot, the state is using criminal statutes.

     Here is the legal contraption, according to prosecutors

  1. All gambling is illegal in Florida, unless it is explicitly made legal by the Legislature.
  2. Lotteries are a form of gambling.
  3. Bingo is a lottery.
  4. Charity bingo is exempt from the criminal prohibitions on lotteries only if the operator complies 100% with every provision of the state bingo statute.
  5. Florida has tough criminal and civil laws against Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO"), which allows the state to take a racketeer's property, as well as obtain prison sentences of up to 30 years.
  6. An enterprise is guilty under RICO if it commits two crimes in five years, if the crimes are on the special RICO list of "predicate" crimes.
  7. Operating an illegal bingo hall is not on the list.
  8. But illegal gambling is.

     A Court of Appeal in southern Florida rejected the argument completely, dismissing the entire RICO claim.  But Chief Judge Griffin of the Court of Appeal sitting in Orlando ruled that though the prosecutors' theory is wrong, they win anyway.

     Judge Griffin, writing for an unanimous three-judge panel, held that bingo is a lottery -- but that does not end the matter.  Under this decision (which is not yet final at the time this column is being written), the bingo statute applies only to operators who are authorized to run bingo games.  Thus, a charity can be charged under the bingo statute if its game breaks the law.  But an operator not authorized to run games at all is violating the state's other anti-gambling laws.

     Judge Griffin ruled the operators could be charged under RICO, because the A.G. alleged these operators were not authorized to operate bingo games. Unauthorized bingo equals illegal lottery, and an enterprise which runs an illegal lottery is guilty of racketeering.

     My bet is that Judge Griffin is wrong and the decision will be reversed by the Florida Supreme Court.

     The RICO list contains over 40 specified predicate crimes.  Included are the crimes you would expect in a racketeering statute homicide, money laundering, prostitution.  But, the Legislature also specifically included violations of laws "relating to dog racing and horse racing" and "relating to jai alai frontons," as well as illegal "gambling" in general.

     If the Legislature had wanted to charge unauthorized bingo operators with racketeering, it would have added bingo to the RICO list.

     There is, in fact, good evidence the lawmakers did not even want illegal bingo operators to be charged with running lotteries.  In laying out its penalties, the lottery act states, "The provisions of this section do not apply to bingo."

     The bingo statute itself has criminal penalties, and they apply to anyone who violates "any provision" of the bingo act.  The penalties may not be as tough as RICO, but they do include felonies.  More importantly, the criminal penalties are exactly the same as the criminal penalties in the lottery act.  So, the lawmakers saw no need to charge a bingo violator with operating an illegal lottery.

     The Legislature wrote a detailed bingo law covering the entire game It not only prohibits seat-saving, but also spells out how the balls are to be shown and even requires bingo callers to ask, "Are there any other winners?" after someone yells, "Bingo!"

     Bingo may or may not be a lottery.  But, I believe the Florida Legislature decided to ignore that question completely.  An operator who violates the bingo act is to be punished for running an illegal bingo game, not for operating an illegal lottery or being a racketeer.

Last Update: April 12, 1998