TIFTON -- Local investigators are continuing their search for three people who pried open a video poker machine Wednesday before leaving the Sunny Food Mart on South Main Street with $3,500 in cash.

Walk into several local convenience stores and you will see people playing the video machines. The two men and a woman who fled Sunny Food Mart Wednesday had been playing the machine they burglarized.

Lt. Porter Jackson of the Tifton Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division said everyone has an opinion of the machines.

"People call and complain about them and people call and tell us how much they enjoy playing them," Jackson said.

Jackson said his division is currently investigating reports of illegal gambling machines in some locations in Tifton.

"If we find someone in violation, we will make a charge and seize the machine," Jackson said. "We have heard of some who aren't complying with the law."

There is no question the state-operated lottery and non-profit bingo games are legal. But which particular forms of video gaming are legal and which are not isn't so clear, Jackson said. And much of the law is left to interpretation.

Video poker and other gambling machines were banned from Georgia in the 2001 special redistricting session of the Georgia General Assembly. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations and others said video gambling was a booming business that couldn't be regulated.

On January 1, 2002, people were told they had six months to either destroy the machines or sell them to someone who would take them out of the state. Several arrests for violations were made after the six-month grace period passed.

The law that banned the gambling machines was challenged and a Fulton County judge ruled the law was unconstitutional. Upon appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the law that banned the machines was legal, so the law passed in 2001 stands today.

The manager of a local convenience store, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said Friday that GBI agents routinely check to make sure the Georgia Department of Revenue's green label of certification is posted on each of the five video games in his store and that the certification hasn't expired.

The majority of the games were similar to the slot machines found in casinos. None of the games were poker-related. None of the video games in this particular store pays winners in cash. Instead, those who play and win receive a receipt for up to $5 in store merchandise. The manager keeps winning receipts and is reimbursed for them by the owner of the machine.

The code section dealing with Georgia's gambling laws is 19 printed pages long. According to Russ Willard, a communications director for the attorney general's office, he has answered numerous questions from the public and law enforcement concerning what is legal and what is not. Video poker machines are not.

"If it is a video card game, poker, like black jack or gin rummy, if it takes money to play it, it is illegal," Willard said. "Anyone who sees a video poker machine that takes nickels, dimes or quarter needs to call local law enforcement."

Willard said a video game must also require some level of skill from a player to be legal and no cash payouts are legal.

"They have to have some sort of participation by the player rather than just a stop button," he said.

The store manager explained that the first play on one of his machines would not produce a win. The second could possibly produce a win for the player because the player had to decide what to keep and what to let go on the next spin.

H.B. 573 was introduced February 27 as an attempt to legalize slot machine gambling in Georgia and change the definition of "gambling device." The bill also address the taxation of the machines. The bill currently sits in the House Regulated Industries Committee on second reading.

To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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