If police want to check the age of people drinking alcohol, they can check IDs to see if they are at least 21 years old.
If they want to check a saloon’s diligence in refusing alcohol to minors, they can send in an undercover minor. The same goes with tobacco compliance checks.
The prohibition of minors also applies to video gambling machines in Illinois. But unlike alcohol and tobacco, you don’t see cases of minors charged with underage video gambling.
Video gambling checks for minors are made by the Illinois Gaming Board. La Salle police chief Rob Uranich said his department has not been involved with stings of gaming sites and said these are conducted by the state.
Further, the state’s compliance checks place the burden on establishments, not the players.
“Any licensee who knowingly permits a person under the age of 21 years to use or play a video gaming terminal is guilty of a business offense and shall be fined an amount not to exceed $5,000,” according to the state statute.
About a year ago, 10 video gambling establishments in the Illinois Valley got a firm reminder of this law.
Fall 2017 sting
By the end of 2017, video gaming was live at 6,359 establishments in Illinois, an 11 percent increase over 2016. There also were 28,271 video gaming machines, a 14 percent increase over 2016. This provides both a large pot of revenue and more opportunities for breaking the law.
In 2017, the state Gaming Board completed 4,999 investigations of persons and entities and 9,066 follow-up compliance inspections and complaints from the public, according to its 2017 annual report.
The Gaming Board issued 139 disciplinary complaints in 22 categories against video gaming establishments — which can include restaurants, bars, convenience stores, fraternal organizations, truck stops, bowling alleys and clubhouses, to name the most common locations.
Of these 139 disciplinary complaints, the category with the most complaints, by far, was failure to prevent underage access to video gambling machines, with 43 complaints. Ten of those were establishments in the La Salle-Peru area.
Those failing checks in La Salle were Pilot Travel Center, Sportsman’s Tap, Lunchbox Cafe and East Side Shell station. In Peru, they were Illinois Valley Super Bowl, Cabin Fever Bar & Grill, Four Star Family Restaurant, Suzi’s Video Poker and Slots, and the Clocktower Shell station. Just outside of Peru, Big Apple restaurant also failed a check.
The results of underage compliance checks are outlined in Gaming Board meeting minutes, which do not mention those that passed the check. Establishments found in violation have three options: to rebut the complaint within 21 days, pay the $5,000 fine or give up their video gaming license. It appears from Gaming Board minutes that most establishments choose to pay the fine.
Reaction to stings
The compliance checks in the Illinois Valley left a wake of controversy with some who found the stings over-reaching or unfair.
Cyle Dickens remembers the state sting when he was manager at Beck’s convenience store in La Salle, which has video gambling machines.
“We were made aware that they were in the area the day they swept the Illinois Valley,” he said.
The state sent in a woman who was 20 years old, he said, and Beck’s passed, he said.
“There were many places that failed that sting,” he said.
One of those was Suzi’s Video Poker and Slots in Peru. Jerry Reynolds remembers the sting. Reynolds, a La Salle alderman, has worked four years at Suzi’s in La Salle and Peru. Reynolds’ job is to monitor customers and serve food and drink as requested, he said.
“If they don’t look 21, you ask,” Reynolds said.
He was not working in the Peru parlor on the day of the sting but learned details from his coworkers and described what he knew.
Two undercover men and an underage woman entered the parlor in Peru. The woman put money into a machine and the machine issued her a ticket recording the transaction. The three left and two uniformed officers entered and issued a disciplinary complaint, Reynolds said.
The woman used in the sting appeared older than 21 years old, according to those who saw here, Reynolds said.
“That sting thing is nothing but a scam for the state,” Reynolds said. “It cost Suzi’s $5,000.”
Reynolds said the state should target offenders who violate the law.
“The person who walks in here knew that weren’t old enough to come in, in the first place,” Reynolds said.
Signs on the outside of Suzi’s say you must be 21 to enter. In other video gaming establishments where minors are allowed, such as restaurants, the video gaming section must be segregated from the rest of the interior and have a sign saying no one under 21 is allowed to play.
Reynolds argues the law and the signs place the burden on the player and if the state is going to fine establishments, it should prosecute underage players.
Walk in and gamble
Customers who enter establishments to gamble don’t have to meet with a clerk or proprietor. They can go straight to the machines and start gambling.
With video gambling, all it takes to trigger an underage violation is use of the machine by a minor.
“Your job is to catch them before they put money in and start gambling,” Dickens said.
For this reason, in part, the sting angered owners of gambling establishments, who felt blindsided, Dickens said.
By comparison, a customer purchasing tobacco or alcohol must meet with a store employee face-to-face, making it more likely that a clerk or manager can determine their age prior to making a sale.
Back at Suzi’s, Reynolds said, “Bye now, thank you,” to a woman who spent about a half-hour at a machine on a weekday morning. Suzi’s was again empty of customers. Ten minutes later, shortly after 11 a.m., another customer walked in.
Reynolds said he spoke with other owners and managers of video gambling sites about the state stings.
“Nobody’s happy,” he said.
After the stings, two bills were introduced early this year by state Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) addressing minors and video. Sponsors include Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris).
One bills passed in the Senate but remains in a House committee. This bill would require the Gaming Board to establish a policy and standards for its operations to investigate establishments’ compliance with barring minors from using video gaming machines, and that the policy and standards should be similar to those used in alcohol and tobacco compliance checks by local police. If a compliance check finds no violation, the state is required to notify an establishment that no violation was found within 30 days of the check.
A second bill with the same Senate sponsors was worded similarly but has never passed out of the Senate. This bill additionally would require the Gaming Board’s compliance checks to be prioritized based on local police reports and citizen complaints of underage gaming; to consider the age and appearance of the underage person used in a sting; to consider limitations of compliance checks during peak hours of an establishment’s operations; and to establish a reasonable amount of time before a violation is considered to have taken place.