Court: Georgia restaurant owner did not run illegal gambling operation

The Georgia Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court are located in the State Judicial Building in downtown Atlanta. (credit: Supreme Court of Georgia)

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The Georgia Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court are located in the State Judicial Building in downtown Atlanta. (credit: Supreme Court of Georgia)

The Georgia Court of Appeals has thrown out illegal gambling convictions against a Middle Georgia restaurateur, even though authorities already shut down his business.

Last year, a Peach County jury convicted Ronnie Bartlett, who owned Captain Jack’s Crab Shack in Byron, of three commercial gambling offenses. But on Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Appeals Court threw out the convictions on grounds there was no evidence to support them.

“This is a vindication for our client,” Atlanta lawyer Chris Anulewicz said. “He had broken no laws. It’s an indictment of the prosecutors for using an unconstitutional scheme that has now hopefully come to an end.”

District Attorney David Cooke said he respects the court’s decision, but disagrees with it and will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“We agree with the judge and jury who found there was sufficient evidence to hold Mr. Bartlett accountable for his crimes,” Cooke said. “And we believe a subsequent appellate decision that more closely examines the evidence will ultimately affirm that verdict.”

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.

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.

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.

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