Court Rules Torch Electronics Can’t Block Gambling Charges

Written By Cheryl Coward on May 30, 2024 - Last Updated on May 31, 2024
A judge reading a ruling as he starts to hit his gavel on the desk

The Western District Court of Appeals ruled that Torch Electronics cannot use the civil court system to shield itself from criminal prosecution for alleged gambling violations.

The ruling upheld a lower court’s dismissal that the state’s largest gaming vendor can’t sue the Missouri State Highway Patrol over police seizure of Torch’s “pre-reveal” gaming machines or subsequent criminal charges.

It’s a serious blow to the company that is seeing several Missouri cities ban the slots-like machines that offer cash prizes.

Ruling: Civil courts cannot impede law enforcement actions

The Appeals Court stated that civil courts cannot interfere with criminal proceedings. Torch’s attempt to frame the lawsuit as a declaratory judgment on a civil statute was not persuasive.

Judge Edward Ardini wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel:

“It is evident from plaintiffs’ amended petition that their objective in bringing this lawsuit is to enjoin law enforcement from determining the devices are criminal and seizing them. We are not persuaded by plaintiffs’ attempts to characterize their claim as one seeking declaratory judgment interpreting a civil statute.”

The decision marks the first appellate ruling on video lottery terminals, or VLTs.

The machines were a key reason Missouri sports betting legislation didn’t make any progress during the 2024 legislative session. A group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Denny Hoskins, didn’t want to pass a sports betting bill that didn’t expressly legalize VLTs. Hoskins and Rep. Crystal Quade filed sports betting bills regulating these machines.

However, Missouri casinos are against VLT legalization because they too closely resemble traditional slot machines.

Since 2018, VLTs have been found in convenience stores, gas stations, and bars across Missouri. Local jurisdictions have also criticized them.

For example, Springfield is actively fighting against VLTs by enforcing a new ordinance that bans such devices. The city has already issued dozens of citations to businesses housing the machines.

Torch maintains the ordinance does not apply to its games and has sued the city. Previously, Torch has had legal tussles with other jurisdictions, including Linn County.

Two Missouri AGs have not offered opinions on VLTs

All sides of the legal battles over the “pre-reveal” gaming machines seem to be in a stalemate at the moment. Torch maintains its games are legal because players can see the outcome of the next game before deciding whether to risk their money. This feature eliminates the element of chance, which is a key component of gambling under Missouri law.

Two Missouri attorneys general have refused to offer an opinion on their legality.

In somewhat of a silver lining for Torch, the Appeals Court dismissed claims by the Missouri Gaming Association that the company’s operations harmed licensed casinos. The court maintained that it cannot issue declarations on the criminality of activities, as this encroaches on the duties of prosecutors.

Ardini wrote:

“Missouri courts do not provide equitable relief that interferes with the enforcement of criminal law absent a challenge to the law’s constitutionality or validity.”

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Cheryl Coward

Cheryl Coward is a contributor for PlayMissouri with a background in sports journalism. She started her career as a news reporter in Washington, DC. She’s a die-hard women’s basketball fanatic and founded the website as a result of that passion. She has extensive experience covering gambling and sports betting in California, including coverage of the Prop 26 vs. Prop 27 election battle.

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