Bill would punish gamblers under 18 at card rooms

Card rooms in Washington already get punished when they allow people under 18 to gamble.

Now they say it’s time for the kids to get in trouble, too.

A bill in the Legislature would make it a civil infraction for a minor to gamble, creating penalties similar to those for underage drinking.

The state Senate voted unanimously Friday to approve the bill. It now must pass through the House and be signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

In the South Sound, gambling is allowed in Lakewood, Federal Way, Fife, Ruston and Lacey, as well as at tribal casinos.

Stakeholders on both sides of Lakewood’s battle to regulate minicasinos say the youth crackdown would be a good thing.

“The worst thing I think is for these kids to not be caught,” said David Anderson, chairman of Save Lakewood, the group behind last November’s failed initiative to ban minicasinos in the city. “I think it would prevent more of them from gambling, certainly.”

Frank Miller, a Tacoma attorney who represents Lakewood’s four minicasinos, said he hasn’t spoken with his clients about this bill, but the move is strongly supported by card rooms around the state.

He said casinos work hard to keep out underage kids to avoid getting fined by the state.

“There’s really no incentive to cater to underage people,” Miller said. “When these things occur, they’re not intentional. They’re an occasional oversight, or sometimes they involve the use of fake IDs.”

Since 2004, the Gambling Commission has conducted 331 undercover stings with underage operatives to see if card rooms comply with the law.

Only 44 percent of establishments tested in 2004 passed inspections. Last year, 78 percent did.

Supporters say there is no deterrent in current law to keep people under 18 from trying their hand at these games, even though it’s illegal.

“Currently the operator of the card room or casino, they’re fined heavily and the juvenile just walks right out the door,” said state Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, the bill’s sponsor. “This I think will bring some awareness to those juveniles who think gambling is OK and fun.”

Under the provisions of SB 5040, minors who gamble would receive a civil infraction and a USD 125 fine, along with the possibility of four hours of community service.

They’d also be forced to forfeit any winnings.

The bill is supported by the state Gambling Commission, nontribal casinos throughout the state and the Family Policy Institute of Washington, an interfaith group.

No one spoke out against it during its committee hearing last month.

Amy Hunter, legislative liaison for the Gambling Commission, said creating a penalty for minors who try to gamble would improve compliance with the law.

“We can punish the dealer and the card room, but not the minor,” Hunter said.

Card rooms and dealers are each cited and fined USD 200 to USD 300 for the first time they let a minor gamble, and more if they let it happen twice within one year. The Gambling Commission can also suspend an establishment’s gambling license for repeat violations.

This is the third year the Gambling Commission has introduced legislation to penalize underage gamblers. Both years it has passed in the House.

Hunter said the Senate’s quick approval of the bill this year is promising.

“I think the third time is the charm, that’s what I’m feeling,” she said Friday.

The House companion bill, HB 1040, also passed out of committee Friday. It is identical to the bill passed by the full Senate the same day.

Anderson of Lakewood added that although he supports a penalty for minors who gamble, minicasinos shouldn’t abdicate responsibility.

“They should know very well by carding who is and should not be in their establishment,” Anderson said. “The onus is on the casinos.”