In May 2015, authorities served a warrant on Bartlett, seized about $24,000 in cash from his home, froze his bank accounts, confiscated his coin-operated gaming machines and shut down Captain Jack’s, according to court records.
Captain Jack’s Crab Shack. (Facebook)
The machines brought in good business. A Georgia Lottery Commission inspector determined that between October 2013 and May 2015, more than $1.2 million in cash was put in Captain Jack’s machines and that Bartlett reported a net profit of $398,176.
In similar cases across the state, prosecutors had given gaming operators the option of settling the asset forfeiture seizures, allowing authorities to keep a portion of the money, Anulewicz said. All the while in those cases, he said, authorities threatened to bring criminal charges.
Bartlett, 75, became the first operator of gaming machines to fight the charges, Anulewicz said. In 2016, Bartlett filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Cooke, Special Assistant DA Michael Lambros and others, contending they seized his property even though they knew his machines were legal. That is still pending.
Atlanta lawyer Chris Anulewicz, who represents Ronnie Bartlett. (Balch & Bingham)
Under Georgia law, commercial gambling — such as a slot machine — is illegal. But there are exceptions for coin-operated games designed for amusement purposes only and which require some skill on the part of the player. Winners are entitled to free replays, store merchandise, vouchers or a combination of those rewards.
Bartlett has said his machines fell under this exception because there could not be an actual winner without some player’s interaction, such as pushing a button to manipulate the wheels.
Prosecutors accused Bartlett of operating illegal gambling machines based partly on a player who said she was able to win without having to manipulate the machine. Also, because some winners were wrongly given cash when they won, Bartlett’s machines should be considered illegal gambling devices, prosecutors said.
But Judge Carla Wong McMillan, who wrote Tuesday's opinion, said both of those theories failed.
First, there was no evidence that Bartlett tampered with his machines or did anything to remove the element of player skill in them, the judge said.
Second, if store operators rewarded players with cash for their winnings, that is a misdemeanor, and Bartlett was not accused of that, McMillan said. Moreover, she added, there is nothing under Georgia law that says cash payouts would convert machines like the ones at Captain Jack’s into an illegal gambling device.