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Sunday, May 1, 2016

District attorney, card machine owner square off over games' legality

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A judge will rule next Thursday on the status of 48 card machines that were seized this week by Shelbyville authorities.

Earlier this week, police took 48 machines from 10 Shelbyville convenience stores on the orders of District Attorney Chuck Crawford, who said the machines are illegal. Police also seized more than $27,000 from the machines and stores.

The devices are owned by Keith Heflin, owner of Worlds of Games LLC, a Shelbyville firm which distributes phoneUS and Freespin machines.

In Bedford County Chancery Court on Friday, Heflin's attorney John Norton said that Crawford had misinterpreted and misapplied the state's gambling statues to seize the machines and filed a temporary injunction to have them returned.

Chancellor J.B. Cox has taken the matter under advisement, stating he will make a ruling Thursday at 1 p.m.

The basic question is: Are these devices gambling machines or not?

"A ruse"

Crawford explained to the T-G that Norton and Heflin were comparing the machines to the game piece sweepstakes held by McDonald's and other such contests.

"The big difference is that nobody goes into McDonald's to play Monopoly and throws their hamburger in the garbage can," Crawford said, calling it "a ruse to add legitimacy to their gambling operation."

But Heflin told the T-G that he has been operating a legal business in Shelbyville for the past 13 years and pays a state business tax.

Heflin described the machines to the T-G in 2009 as "collectors card/phone card dispensing systems featuring promotional play games of chance and skill that serve as an advertisement medium to promote the sale of the cards."

Norton compared the situation Heflin was facing to Tennessee's "crack tax," where people found with drugs were accessed a levy for the illegal substance. That law was eventually found to be unconstitutional and repealed in 2009.

The attorney said he felt he was "down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland" because earlier that day, Norton had filed motions for Heflin against the Department of Revenue, who were attempting to tax him in addition to gross receipts they have already accepted, with Norton noting if what Heflin was doing was illegal, "they couldn't tax us at all."

"But yet, this afternoon, I'm arguing against General Crawford for picking up my machines because they are gambling devices .... this is the grossest oxymoron I've ever been involved in!" he said.

Michael Myers, who represented Crawford, said that criminal charges had been filed in the case, and that the matter should be handled in those courts. He said that Norton's injunction was an attempt to stop Crawford from enforcing the law.

Myers also said that the decision whether or not the machine were gambling devices should be made in criminal court.

But Norton said that Chancellor Lee had authority to impose an injunction, asking the D.A. and officers to take pictures and video of the machines and return them.

"He's taken our livelihood, he's taken our equipment, he's taken our proprietary interest in vending machines, picked them up and took them away," Norton said, adding that if Heflin prevailed before Cox, he would not be able to sue Crawford for the damages due to immunity.

"The only person that is able to protect him (Heflin) is you (Cox)," Norton said.

More charges?

Heflin had noted in a press release Thursday that Crawford had entered into an agreed order in 2010 that the machines 'are distinctively different' from those named as illegal gambling devices.

But Crawford told the T-G that Heflin's machines are different from "obviously blatant gambling devices because they are using a ruse to make them seem more legitimate, like the sale of a phone card or a collectable baseball card."

Crawford explained that those machines in question were given back because no criminal charges had been filed in that case. He said that the case occurred four years before he became the D.A.

He said it would have been a waste of taxpayer money to battle over the few machines of Heflin's that were seized due to the amount of time that had passed in the case.

The D.A. also mentioned that Heflin was the only person that claimed any of the machines that were rounded up years ago, but the other devices, such as Cherry Masters, were destroyed.

But now, criminal summons have been filed over the machines, and Crawford said the devices have been giving payouts of money, adding that the machines would not be turned back over to Heflin unless they were ordered to do so.

Crawford also said that there other charges that are "still forthcoming."