Editorial: Sheriff’s office right to take on tough fight

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office is right to take aim at so-called “fish arcade” businesses.

The Sheriff’s Office last week issued a letter to 22 such businesses, saying they violate the state’s sweepstakes law and that they are illegal gambling businesses.

While the Sheriff’s Office will surely hear from attorneys hired by businesses to fight their threatened closure, it shouldn’t back down. Sheriffs in nearby counties have successfully forced the closure of fish arcades, which have long faced questions about their legality. Action by courts, municipal boards and inaction by the businesses themselves are reason enough to continue on a path toward closure.

The city of Salisbury and town of Granite Quarry, for example, have changed zoning laws to move the businesses to less-desirable areas, one sign that many local folks don’t like them. In Salisbury, zoning laws were changed to only allow “electronic gaming establishments” in highway business districts. In Granite Quarry, the town board limited the businesses to the same areas where bus repair shops, foundries producing iron and steel, manufacturing facilities, railroad freight yards, sheet metal shops and tire retreading businesses are allowed.

The Sheriff’s Office knows that electronic gaming establishments simply change their names and offerings to continue to operate just within a gray area of the law.

It was once video poker. Then, it was sweepstakes games. Now, players put cash into a machine and shoot fish, netting them points that can be redeemed. But N.C. Court of Appeals in October said changes to increase the “skill” required didn’t matter. That the games were shown on an “entertaining display” was a key factor in last year’s decision.

Owners of so-called “fish arcades” might argue that last year’s ruling applied to a different kind of game — sweepstakes. And that may be a reasonable argument, but the businesses have been the site of criminal activity, some reported and some not, in communities across the state. Law enforcement certainly has the ability to take action against establishments that are the frequent site of illegal and questionable activities.

As Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy David Ramsey told reporter Shavonne Walker in a story published Thursday (“Cracking down on fish arcades”), “Multiple robberies have occurred of these gambling establishments, some of which have gone unreported to law enforcement. Complaints of drug dealing and other crimes have also been reported.” Earlier this month, for example, a man was charged in a robbery that a police officer only found out about when talking to someone he pulled over in a routine traffic stop.

The Sheriff’s Office deserves credit for taking on what will surely be a prolonged battle. It should continue that work. In the meantime, state lawmakers should be more explicit about which kinds of gaming establishments they consider legal.