Two players sit down in their country club recreation room and
decide to play a penny-a-point gin rummy game. When the game is
over, the loser extracts his wallet and passes a few bills to the
other. At that moment, a couple of plainclothes police officers come
up and say to the players, "Youíre under arrest for gambling."
John Smith has decided to run a small office pool for Super Bowl
Sunday, in conjunction with a party at his house. He made up a sheet
divided into squares, a 10-by-10 grid that covered where all the
possible scores could fall. Players could buy a square on the grid
for a dollar, and whoever had the right score numerically would win
the hundred dollars. His ex-girlfriend got wind of the party and
informed her new boyfriend, who was on the local police force. As
the winning team began their celebration and John was about to pay
off, there was a cry at the door, "Open up; police." John was
arrested for gambling, and his sheet for the office pool was taken
as evidence against him.
These accounts are fictional. They never happened, and would be
extremely unlikely to occur. They were constructed to illustrate the
types of activity that a person could be arrested and jailed for in
my home state of Michigan, according to state law. Of course,
gambling laws are not strictly enforced. The approach is to make all
gambling illegal, and leave it up to the chief of police to
determine what gambling activity is enforced and what is ignored.
Since that job is an elected office in my county, the chief would be
a fool to use his meager resources to conduct a crackdown on the
type of activity described. The chief is aware of the local gambling
mores, and some people on the force are avid poker players, so he
uses discretion in enforcing the law.
There is a lot of pressure these days on judges to "follow the law
instead of make the law," but people seem blissfully unaware that
there is a high degree of discretion in enforcement of certain laws.
By far the biggest area in which police are supposed to think for
themselves is in enforcing the gambling laws. Police are relied on
to use their own judgment regarding the law (even though judges are
not supposed to do it).
Of course, no one is perfect. There have been some infamous lapses
in judgment by police from time to time; like when a Dadís Doughnut
Shop in California was raided because the patrons were playing chess
for 50 cents a game; or when a senior citizens trailer park in
Florida had a poker game raided, and the police confiscated $22 that
had been in the pot as evidence of illegal gambling. (The arrested
players subsequently became famous as the "Largo Seven," and
appeared on Johnny Carsonís Tonight Show to tell their story.)
These lapses in judgment by police are almost laughable; others have
not been quite so funny, like the time in the í70s when a SWAT team
in the Detroit metro area followed a "suspicious character" to a
poker game in an apartment, then decided to raid it. The poker
players turned out to be a group of Oakland County deputy sheriffs,
who understandably thought they were being hijacked. In the
resulting gun battle, three men were wounded and one died.
My home state of Michigan may not be as sophisticated as some of the
coastal states like New York, Massachusetts, or California, but it
is hardly considered to be a hick state, and it is not located in
the Bible Belt. Why does my state have such draconian laws? In fact,
about half the states in our nation have the same stringent laws on
gambling that Michigan does.
These state laws specify what gambling is legal; any other gambling
is illegal. Gambling is legal if the state does it. We of course
have a state lottery. Gambling is legal if a casino does it. We have
casinos, both on Native American land and off it. We have our share
of racetracks, where gambling is an innate part. But you cannot
gamble at such potentially sinful locations as your home, office, or
country club. If you and I make a private wager on a round of golf
here, we have broken Michigan law.
Where do such stringent laws on gambling come from? They certainly
were not written in the 21st century. Most of them were not written
in the 20th century. In fact, nearly all of them were drafted in the
19th century. That was a long, long time ago. That was the century
when slavery was legal in America, and the U.S. Supreme Court said a
runaway slave had to be returned to his master. That was the century
when a British seaman could be given 50 lashes or more with a
cat-oí-nine-tails if the shipís captain was displeased with him. It
was a totally different era in our society. It does look a bit
peculiar now to permit branding and whipping people, but disallow
all gambling. Yet, a vestige of that rather morally skewed time
period continues in our gambling laws.
The spread of state lotteries, tribal casinos, and the popularity of
our game of poker all indicate that modern society is far removed in
action and attitude from the age when our gambling laws were
enacted. Nearly everyone is aware of this immense change in our
attitude toward gambling as our society has evolved, but our state
laws do not reflect this change. Yours might not, either. It is high
time that they did.
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