Just days after the Supreme Court of Virginia reinstated the state’s ban on slots-like skill machines, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office is urging prosecutors to give owners of businesses offering the machines time to phase them out over the coming four weeks.
“Because these games are located in businesses throughout the commonwealth, the Attorney General recommends that Commonwealth’s Attorneys delay enforcement until November 15, allowing businesses an adjustment period to comply with this order,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slemp wrote in a letter to the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys dated Sunday.
Slemp added that this period is “intended to facilitate an orderly transition and to ensure that all affected parties have adequate time to comply with the law.”
The high court on Friday overruled a decision by the Greensville County Circuit Court, which in December 2021 issued a temporary injunction blocking the enforcement of the ban after Hermie Sadler, a former NASCAR driver and entrepreneur from Emporia, filed a suit against then-Gov. Ralph Northam; Mark Herring, then the attorney general; and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.
Sadler alleges in his suit that the ban infringes on his First Amendment rights as a businessman and that its sole purpose is to create an advantage for large, resort-style casinos and gambling chains moving into Virginia at the expense of small businesses surviving off the profit of the betting machines.
Electronic skill games function like slot machines that pay out winnings to players. But unlike games of chance, such as the slot machines at the larger casinos, skill games have an interactive component. In Virginia, there are currently 6,000 machines that were previously regulated by the Virginia ABC, plus an estimated 2,000 additional machines operated illegally.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision last week, Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Myares, initially said in an email that the ban would be in effect immediately, “and commonwealth’s attorneys are free to enforce it.”
Sadler said in a phone interview Tuesday that the court’s decision on a Friday afternoon would have turned business owners across Virginia into criminals if they failed to immediately remove their electronic betting machines.
“The new statute doesn’t only criminalize the operation but also the possession of these machines, and for them to be completely disabled you have to take internal parts out before they can be removed from the locations, which takes some time,” Sadler said.
“While we still don’t believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision, we appreciate the attorney general’s office giving small business owners like myself the opportunity to fully comply, because there is no way people will get thousands of machines not only disabled but removed within one day,” Sadler said. “A lot of people would have potentially been charged.”
The high court’s ruling from Friday found that because the General Assembly changed the definition of skill games during its 2023 session, the injunction that Sadler sought applied to the previous definition.
The court also found that the lower court had abused its discretion by issuing the temporary injunction, and the justices maintained that Sadler’s free speech claim “is unlikely to succeed on the merits,” adding that “a party challenging the constitutionality of an enactment of the General Assembly is faced with a daunting task.”
Despite the high court’s ruling from Friday, Sadler’s case is still scheduled to be tried in Greensville County in December.