With raids of illegal game rooms now commonplace across Texas, Nueces County has decided to try another tack. On Jan. 2, the county enacted new regulations for game rooms, essentially legalizing them in the Corpus Christi area.
Legalizing game rooms doesn’t change Texas laws against them
Even though Nueces County has legalized game rooms, they still operate under the gaming laws of Texas. Commercial casinos are still outlawed in Texas, though there is pending legislation at the statehouse to change that. Game rooms in the county, just like ones all across Texas, can’t pay out cash or prizes that have a value over $5.
Some game rooms maneuver around laws banning gambling by either not offering cash payouts for winnings or by selling patrons some type of service before the game can be played. These machinations are met with skepticism, and the Texas Supreme Court might have to ultimately determine the legality of operating eight-liner slot machines outside tribal casinos in the state.
Businesses that house them argue that they exist in a gray area of the law. A Texas Appeals Court last year, however, ruled that eight-liners are unconstitutional and thus illegal in the state.
The Nueces County Commissioners Court hopes to minimize crimes that occur in and around the game rooms, including distribution of drugs, prostitution and even organized crime. In this aim, they are not alone. Last year, the south-Texas town of Elsa enacted similar game room ordinances to benefit the community and curtail crime.
Game rooms will operate under four mandates
After approval from the Nueces County Commissioners Court, four mandates are now in effect.
- Nueces County game rooms can only be open from noon until midnight Sunday through Thursday. On Fridays and Saturdays, they can be open from noon until 2 a.m.
- Game rooms can’t operate within 1,500 feet of a residential neighborhood, school or a church.
- Nueces County game rooms must have armed security on site during gaming hours.
- Game rooms must apply and receive a permit from Nueces County before operating as a legal game room.
The fee to apply is $1,000, which is non-refundable, even if officials reject an application.
The new mandates were originally going to begin on Oct. 1 last year, but officials pushed the date to Jan. 2. The Nueces County Commissioners Court voted 5-0 in favor of the mandates on May 25, 2022. The county got input from residents, game room operators and bingo hall owners before voting on the new rules.
The Corpus Christi Police Department and the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office both support the new mandates, with each law enforcement organization saying they should help to stem illegal gambling.
To implement and enforce these mandates, the county created a game room administrator position under the sheriff’s office. The person will oversee permits and monitor game rooms for compliance.
New rules put in place to stem crime activity
The main reason for these new mandates in Nueces County is to limit illegal gambling operations that have become bastions for crimes of all kinds. The businesses have become petri dishes for the distribution of narcotics and other drugs, prostitution, the sale and smuggling of weapons, housing of stolen cars and much more. Organized crime thrives in these environments, First Assistant District Attorney Angelica Hernandez told local news channel KIII.
“They’re a breeding ground for a lot of other criminal activity. You’ve got money laundering, you’ve got drug use, you’ve got prostitution, you’ve got trafficking. There are other types of criminal activity that go hand-in-hand with these types of facilities.”
Among the dozens of raids of game rooms across Texas last year, five women were arrested in December in Corpus Christi. They face engaging with organized crime charges in addition to operating a gambling house. Four of the five women also face gambling promotion and possession of a gambling device charges.
They were all caught in a multi-week investigation by undercover agents. Two agents performed a sting operation, playing eight-liner machines and collecting cash payouts. During the subsequent raid, $36,000 in cash was taken along with several eight-liners. All five women face maximum fines of up to $10,000 and two years in jail.
A July raid at an illegal gambling house last year saw two men get arrested. The Corpus Christi Police Department’s Narcotics and Vice Investigations Division uncovered the illegal gambling operation. David Rivers and Ray Fivora were arrested on July 12 and charged with keeping a gambling house, possession of gambling devices and gambling promotion.
There have been similar busts in every corner of the state. These new mandates might help marginally, but there is one solution that could solve them all instantly.
Legalized gambling would remove the problem entirely
The main reason for the existence of these illegal gaming rooms is because there are very limited means of gaming and wagering. With state-regulated casinos still outlawed and sports betting prohibited, people in Texas who want to gamble either need to leave the state or find other means, such as these illegal gambling houses.
If Texas lawmakers were to legalize sports betting and expand legal gaming at casinos and other regulated establishments, game rooms and the attendant crimes they allow for could be stemmed.
Houston Democrat Sen. Carol Alvarado is sponsoring SRJ17. It would expand gambling access across the state. The legislation would increase the number of legal casinos and also create the legal language to work toward legalizing retail sports betting in the near future. Similar bills have failed in the past, but this year looks to be the best shot for legal gaming expansion in the state.