Sheriff’s office begins new effort to close fish arcades, sweepstakes outlets

Published 12:10 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

SALISBURY — A new measure now in effect in Rowan County aims to stop the operations of fish arcades and sweepstakes locations.

On Wednesday, Rowan County Chief Deputy Jason Owens provided insight into the recent cease-and-desist letters the sheriff’s office sent out to those businesses and how it intends to enforce them.

“We had an officer go to each location personally, hand them the letter saying you need to immediately close down because you are in violation of the law and what you are doing is illegal,” Owens said. “We felt like that was the best way to do it, to give them essentially a warning that this is your final chance to shut down before we come in and raid the place and started charging people.”

Those letters, signed by Owens’ boss, Sheriff Travis Allen, gave the businesses little choice. According to Owens, many of them have heeded the warning.

“Most of them have signs saying they are temporarily closed,” Owens said. “We have been monitoring these locations. Some have closed down and not reopened. We are monitoring the ones that are open, and if they continue to be open, we will be visiting those locations.”

The chief deputy warned sweepstakes businesses to refrain from reacting as many of their predecessors had when faced with previous closure ultimatums.

“We know they reopen periodically,” Owens said. “That is what they have done in the past. We will bust a few of them, and they will stay closed for a few months but then slowly start opening back up. For any of them still running the business now, we will see shortly.”

Owens indicated that some of these businesses have previously shut down and opened up under a new name.

“That doesn’t matter,” Owens said. “It is the activity going on there that matters.

“A lot of times, what is being referred to here are the employees that work there. That will be the individual who gets charged. It’s not necessarily the owner of the business. The employees must also be aware they are working for an illegal establishment. If you are the security guard, and we come in and cite you, you get a misdemeanor. If you work there again in three months, it will be a felony.”

The law backing up the sheriff’s office’s latest measure hinges on a court-defined distinction between games of skill and games of chance.

“Games of skill are legal,” Owens said. “Games of chance are not. Games of chance would be the equivalent of going to a legitimate casino and playing a slot machine. It’s not a skill game. It’s just a game of luck.”

That ruling came down from a federal court in June of 2022. Despite that, many of the businesses have remained open, blurring the legality for potential customers.

“When individuals see these businesses open and see individuals going in, they feel like it is legal because we are not doing anything about it,” Owens said. “I think a lot of people feel like if there is a business there and deputies are riding by every day, and we’re letting them stay open, then it must be legitimate. That’s why the sheriff has said we will not let them stay open. We will not let crime be committed in broad daylight. That is why he took the stance that he did.”

According to Owens, Rowan County had developed a reputation for being a place soft enough on fish arcades, luring in potential operators. With the new measures, the sheriff’s office aims to squash that reputation.

While ultimately the letter relied on the law prohibiting games of chance from operating in North Carolina, Owens also highlighted an above-average crime rate at the businesses as one of the reasons they needed to be shut down.

“If someone gets a payout and other people in there realize so and so just won some money, it could attract someone to try and rob that person when they go to leave the business,” Owens said. “Seems like we are having some robberies at these locations.”

However, the crimes don’t stop at robbery, as Owens pointed out.

“There was a security guard who was killed at one of them,” Owens said. “When you think about it, if you have to hire an armed security guard to work at a sweepstakes location, then you have problems.”

Owens explained that the security guard matter goes even deeper.

“These armed security guards are not legitimate,” Owens said. “They don’t work for a company. They are not licensed as security guards. They don’t have any formal training. It’s usually just somebody they hired to search people at the door.”

The chief deputy indicated that during one investigation, they discovered the security guard was a convicted felon and wasn’t even allowed to possess a firearm.

“You are dealing with those types of individuals at these locations,” Owens said.

According to Owens, skipping out on taxes is just one more way these businesses are skirting the law.

“A lot of employees who work at these places are getting paid in cash,” Owens said. “They aren’t getting W2s or 1099s. They are not paying taxes on any of the money they make. They are getting paid cash and don’t even know anybody’s name.”

Everything about these businesses, if you check into it, you would think it was illegal and it’s not just the employees.

“If you win money from the North Carolina Education Lottery, you have to pay taxes on it,” Owens said. “If you go to a fish house and win $2,000, you don’t pay taxes on it.”

Although similar efforts have been undertaken previously, Owens remains optimistic that this time will be different.