Sanity card trumps city police in poker fiasco

November 11, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Now that sanity has belatedly arrived in a small corner of Baltimore's criminal justice system, those such as Eddie Oates are free to vent a little. He was there last week, playing poker, when the great wave of city police arrived and hit the Owl's Nest warehouse near Camden Yards like the beach at Normandy. The police had guns and barking dogs. Oates had his hands full of poker chips. Leave it to the cops to show up just in time to bust up a winning streak.

The police booked 80 people and called this the biggest gambling raid in the city since 1932, when 118 people were arrested in Greektown. They said this with a certain amount of pride, until they noticed the town's reaction. Everybody was appalled. They're breaking up card games? What's next, church bingo? The cops say they were only enforcing the law, which says certain forms of gambling are illegal.

But naturally there are loopholes to laws when they are deemed necessary to avoid public embarrassment. That's why sanity now arrives. City prosecutors say they will throw out the gambling charges. They mutter something about the cops using the wrong subsection of law in filling out the tickets that they distributed that night.


But it lets Eddie Oates vent a little. He was having a grand time until the gendarmes arrived. He was winning and winning. Oates, a Catonsville resident, is a smart fellow and a great game player. When he's not playing poker, he's busy winning backgammon tournaments around the country. He's 58 years old, a 1965 graduate of Poly's A Course who won a scholarship to Drexel and now works as a mechanical designer for an industrial engineering firm in Howard County.

"I've been going down there [to the Owl's Nest] to play poker for over a year," he was saying Wednesday night over dinner at a pal's East Baltimore home. "If there was something wrong, I don't know why they waited until now. I heard about the game through e-mails. And there were ads in The Sun. Nobody thought anything was illegal. Nobody was trying to hide anything. Every week, the guys running the game stood up and announced the charities they were donating money to. I think one of the charities was the police."

Well, the fellas might be rethinking that little bit of good will.

"I was literally raking in a pot I had just won," Oates said, "when the police came in the door. The first thing the guy says is, `This is a search and seizure. You are breaking the law. Put your hands on the table, don't make any noise, and no sudden movements.'

"Twenty police, at least. They didn't have their guns drawn, but they were visible. And dogs, which are all barking. One guy at my table made a crack, and I laughed. The officer says, `If anybody thinks this is funny, maybe we'll just turn these dogs loose.'"

Beautiful. The crack dealers stand on nearby street corners, and the cops bust up a poker game. The homicide count climbs, and we turn card players into criminals. Could we have a little perspective please?

From 30 years ago, we have the words of Lt. George Andrew, who headed the city vice squad. Andrew loved telling the story about a raid he conducted one night against a well-known gambling operator. First the cops hammered in the front door. Then they raced into the place and found the gambler in bed with a woman not precisely his wife.

"Lieutenant Andrew," the gambler said, looking up and seeing Andrew and a squad of officers behind him. "Thank God it's you."

"What do you mean, `Thank God?'" Andrew said.

"When I heard that door crash," said the gambler, "I thought it was this lady's husband."

Perspective, that's all.

The police now say they were merely enforcing the law, and of course they are right. But we also know that certain laws are winked at, and some are not. We have crimes with victims, and crimes without. We have streets full of dangerous criminals, and converted warehouses with friendly poker games.

"People were in shock," Oates said. "Everybody thought this was legal. One guy says, `I'm not worried, except what do I tell my wife?' I thought it was an episode of Law and Order. So then they call us over, one by one, and pat us down and they write out a summons. They tell us, `You don't sign it, we'll have to take you to Central Booking, and you might not get out until tomorrow.' So now you have 80 people who never in their lives felt like criminals, and now we do."

But now we have sanity from the state's attorney's office, where the grownups say they will dismiss the charges and not pursue any new ones. A waste of court resources, they say. And the cops, looking to save a little face, say they were only doing their job, which is enforcing the law.

So maybe it's time to check that law. Maybe they should examine it this winter at the General Assembly. Except, of course, those are the same folks who have spent the past three years trying to wrestle that other form of gambling, slot machines, to the ground.

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