Jokers Wild in Gambling Raid
by Ari Armstrong, May 4, 2005
It was a sickening abuse of police power.
Here's how one victim described it: "I think what hasn't been reported is the aggressiveness of it. They came in with guns drawn, lasers trained on people's heads. They swarmed in screaming, 'Put your hands over your face and don't move.' I don't think I've ever been that frightened in my life."
So what emergency, what crisis, prompted this massive display of police force? Was a terrorist threatening to blow up part of the town? Had somebody kidnapped a child? Was a murderer on the loose? Had a gang of thieves been discovered?
People were playing a game of cards.
That was the pretext for the militarized police raid, featuring storm troopers "with guns drawn, lasers trained on people's heads."
A GAME OF CARDS. (All allegations of criminal activity are currently just that -- allegations.)
Here's how Walter Schlomer, from whom I first heard of the case, described the absurdity: "Law enforcement officials in Palmer Lake, Colorado, have successfully eliminated all crime from their community. All actual crimes, the ones that might cause damage to you or your property, no longer occur there. It must be true, because they just spent a month conducting an undercover investigation of a $15 poker game held weekly at a local restaurant."
Of course, while the police involved in the raid deserve nothing but contempt and moral censure, they were merely acting on the power given to them by the state legislature. The Colorado Revised Statutes state: "18-10-103. Gambling - professional gambling - offenses. (1) A person who engages in gambling commits a class 1 petty offense. (2) A person who engages in professional gambling commits a class 1 misdemeanor. If he is a repeating gambling offender, it is a class 5 felony." The legislature sets various additional rules about gambling, many of which can be read online (search for "gambling"). For instance, the legislature saw fit to write some 3,476 words regulating bingo raffles (see section 12-9-107). The state also sets various rules for owners of bars.
At the same time, the monopoly gambling ring run by the Colorado state government (a.k.a., the "stupid tax") is running up large figures. The lottery brags of "record sales of $407 million for fiscal year 2002." The same page notes that the legislature renewed this gambling ring several times. The Trust for Public Land notes, "Approved on the ballot by voters in 1980 and passed by the General Assembly in 1982, SB 119 established a state-sponsored lottery which began in January of 1983."
So let's review. If you participate in recreational card playing with a tiny pool that costs less than the price of two adult movie tickets, you will be raided by a swarm of card police who point their guns at your head and threaten you with imprisonment. If, on the other hand, you run a half-billion-dollar per year monopoly gambling ring okayed by Colorado politicians, then you get a cushy salary, benefits, and the praise of the political class.
An April 29 article by Jane Reuter from the Gazette is worth reviewing. (That's where "[t]own board member Trish Flake, who was served a misdemeanor summons for suspicion of professional gambling," made the comment about the "aggressiveness" of the raid.)
Reuter reports, "Restaurant owner Jeff Hulsmann faces felony and misdemeanor charges for allegedly hosting gambling activity in a licensed liquor establishment and on suspicion of professional gambling... Palmer Lake Police Chief Dale Smith defended the tactics: 'It's standard habit and practice for these kinds of situations'."
Did you get that? It's "standard habit and practice" for police to engage in a dangerous, violent assault over a game of cards. I do not doubt that police tactics are often militarized and brutal -- and that is precisely the problem.
Reuter: "Most of those officers were from the Colorado Springs Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence [sic] Unit, not the Palmer Lake Police Department. Nevertheless, Hulsmann, Flake and other residents are placing blame for the incident on Smith. Smith, a 30-year Palmer Lake police officer, said an officer reported to him in late January she'd seen apparent gambling in the restaurant. Smith asked her to prepare a report, which he turned over to state liquor enforcement officials... Smith said he's often warned people they were breaking the law instead of arresting them. But this was a different matter. 'Normally, we don't give warnings for felonies,' he said, adding he abandoned the small-town approach because the case was complex. 'We were uncertain whether it was legal or not,' he said. 'That's why we referred it to state liquor enforcement'."
So, because the local cop didn't even know whether the game of cards "was legal or not," that's the reason he escalated the situation into a state-wide assault.
A felony for playing cards. That you can be charged with a felony for playing cards is the true crime.
Reuter: "Until recently, poker games involving money were also regularly played at The Bowling Alley, another Palmer Lake establishment. Hulsmann doesn't see a difference between the two. Bowling Alley bartender Pat Duffy said managers there first checked with state officials to ensure they were following the rules. Smith said The Bowling Alley, unlike Guadala Jarra's, wasn't advertising the games and that the same half-dozen people played each time. It was not an organized activity, he said. The Bowling Alley plans to hold games again, Duffy said, offering not cash but prizes to game winners."
So it's okay to gamble for prizes other than cash, if you ask a bureaucrat for permission first and follow several other arbitrary rules. Otherwise, it's a police raid and a felony.
Reuter: "Still, Hulsmann questions every aspect of the bust, including a press release that states officials seized more than $3,000 in cash. About $2,400 of that, he said, was money returned to him Tuesday by a former employee arrested for stealing from Hulsmann. Smith confirmed one of his officers saw the woman give the money to Hulsmann... Hulsmann said the players each put $10 or $15 into a pot that was to be divided among the eventual winners of the tournament... Although poker players played for money, cash was handled by officers from the Elephant Rock Texas Hold 'Em Poker Club, said club founder Stuart Currier. Poker money never stayed in the restaurant overnight, and Hulsmann didn't charge entry fees, Currier and Hulsmann said."
Based on Reuter's review, it is obvious that Police Chief Smith should be fired. And then run out of town on a rail. Rather than behave as a "peace officer," Smith violently attacked the very people he was supposed to protect.
Brian D. Crecente adds some interesting details in his April 28 story for the Rocky Mountain News. He writes, "Law enforcement officials said the raid was the culmination of a monthlong undercover investigation involving local law enforcement and the State Gaming Division... But Matt Sentman, a waiter at the restaurant, said the house didn't keep any of the money, and he called the weekly gatherings a social event akin to a night of poker at a friend's house... He said the group had gathered for poker and was just getting started when a man walked into the restaurant about 7:45 p.m. and identified himself as a police officer. Seconds later a few people who had been playing poker with the group for the past month stood up and said they were also officers. Then a stream of officers came in through the restaurant's back, side and front doors."
In other words, these police officers were paid, out of tax dollars, over the period of a month, to play poker, which is, for the rest of us, a crime that can result in a raid, a felony, and incarceration. But I'm sure these officers didn't enjoy playing poker on the taxpayers' dime, just as other officers don't enjoy getting paid to pick up prostitutes or do drugs.
So here's the moral of the story. You can legally gamble in Colorado (outside the specially designated gambling towns), but only if you are a politician, a cop, or a bureaucratic ass-kisser. Otherwise, playing games for reward is a crime that invites a raid by heavily armed card police followed by felony charges.
Or, put another way, the legislature has sanctioned a violent assault on peaceable Coloradans and made a mockery of the law.