Poker players to get reprieve

Prosecutors plan to toss charges from raid

police consider refiling


City prosecutors announced yesterday that they would throw out gambling charges against 80 poker players swept up in a recent police raid at a South Baltimore club because officers had used the wrong subsection of law in filling out the tickets they distributed the night of the raid.

Although the poker players - many of whom thought the tournament at the Owl's Nest was legal because organizers said some proceeds would go to charity - could be recharged, city prosecutors said they would take no further action because it would be a waste of court resources.

"We don't believe there will be any new charges filed against the players," said Assistant State's Attorney Patricia Deros, chief attorney at the Eastside District Court, who reviewed the citations and made the decision to dismiss them with final approval from city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

The news that prosecutors would not pursue new charges elicited a sigh of relief from Michael Ruyter, 37, of Crofton, who attended the tournament and was cited by police along with several friends.

"That's great news," he said. "I'll be able to sleep tonight."

But it was unclear whether the Police Department would file new charges.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said his office would meet with prosecutors to determine the next steps.

Sgt. Craig Gentile, a vice detective who organized the raid at the Owl's Nest, at 1800 Worcester St., said he couldn't comment on the matter.

"It's an open case now and I can't comment on an open case," he said.

Asked whether the Police Department was planning a widespread crackdown on poker tournaments - held regularly in fraternal organizations, bars and restaurants across the city - Hamm gave a curt reply: "We are going to enforce the law."

Police said gambling charges and liquor violations could be filed against tournament organizers Gerald C. Dickens, 65, of Bowie and Joseph A. Cary, 50, of Pasadena.

Nine poker dealers, other club employees and several waitresses also could be charged in the Nov. 2 raid.

Reached by telephone at his home last night, Dickens said he could not comment on the dismissal of the citations. He said that he and Cary would soon make their first public statement regarding the raid, which police said was the largest since 1932. In that instance, 118 people were arrested during a Prohibition-era raid in Greektown, according to news accounts.

"We're talking to our lawyers now," Dickens said. "That's all I can say."

City prosecutors questioned the subsection of law under which Gentile and his vice squad cited the poker players late last week but said they needed more time to review the law to determine whether the charges were legally sufficient.

In the end, Deros said, they were not.

Police charged the players under a subsection of law that states that a person may not "keep, rent, use or occupy" a building for the purpose of gambling. Deros said another subsection - one that prohibits a "bet, wager or gamble" - should have been applied.

"It's just not the appropriate subsection," she said.

Deros said the 80 citations are slated to be dismissed in district court today.

She said part of the decision not to pursue new charges against the 80 players had to do with "judicial economy," or the cost of processing the cases. If the poker players requested jury trials, as is their right, the court system could become even more overburdened, she explained.

Across the nation, poker is being played in bars and restaurants and fire halls. It is also being shown on television, and gamblers can even meet online to hone their skills and qualify for high-stakes games.

In many cases, gambling on poker is being done illegally and without regulation. Without enforcement, this form of gambling is becoming so prevalent that, in effect, it is becoming decriminalized, said economics professor Bill Eadington, who runs the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. Poker clubs could create new avenues for criminal activity, he said.

"The question then becomes, what do you do about it," Eadington said.

He said state legislators could legalize poker, require licensing and collect taxes - moves that would protect the public from criminal scams. But that's unlikely because, compared to slot machines, the revenue state and local governments could collect from poker games is relatively small.

Poker players are paid from a pool of their own money, and the house collects a relatively small percentage for conducting the game. Regulating the earnings of the house and regulating the games is a burden many jurisdictions would find unattractive, Eadington said.

"It's not a good tax base," he said, adding: "The status quo is probably what you are going to have to live with."

In California, legally sanctioned card rooms have flourished off and on since it became a state in 1850. Poker generates millions of dollars annually and local governments have cashed in.

Deros dismissed the notion that illegal poker tournaments in Baltimore could grow in popularity if players believe they won't be prosecuted.

"Everyone is on notice now," she said. "Everyone knows this is illegal. We will review each and every future case. Had these 80 players been charged appropriately, we might have taken a different route and prosecuted them."

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