Justice Department opinion could restrict online gambling

(Photo / relux / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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WASHINGTON—A recent U.S. Department of Justice opinion could strengthen the federal prohibition of online gambling across state lines.

Steven Engel, assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, issued an opinion that the Justice Department “incorrectly interpreted” the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 in a 2011 ruling that narrowly applied its prohibitions to sports gambling.

rodger weems130
Rodger Weems

Rodger Weems, chairman of Texans Against Gambling, welcomed the decision and its return to a pre-2011 interpretation of the Wire Act.

“While it is unproductive to speculate about motives, one thing is clear. The U.S. Department of Justice decision to restore the efficacy of the Wire Act represents a return to the letter of the law. We can ask for nothing more and should accept no less,” Weems said.

Congress originally passed the Wire Act during the Kennedy Administration to combat organized crime by prohibiting certain interstate gambling operations.

In part, the act states, “Whoever being engaged in the business of betting or wagering knowingly uses a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest, or for the transmission of a wire communication which entitles the recipient to receive money or credit as a result of bets or wagers, or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years.”

Conflicting interpretations

At the request of state lotteries in New York and Illinois, the Justice Department issued an opinion in 2011 to clarify whether it prohibited online lotteries. The Justice Department opinion at that time said the law applied only to sports betting, and several states expanded online gambling in response.

In Engel’s recently released opinion, he reached a different conclusion.

“The 2011 opinion, in our view, incorrectly interpreted the limitation ‘on any sporting event or contest’ (the ‘sports-gambling modifier’) to apply beyond the second prohibition that it directly follows: the prohibition on transmitting ‘information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers,’” he wrote.

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He concluded “the statutory prohibitions are not uniformly limited to gambling on sporting events or contests,” and he determined enactment of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act did not alter the scope of the Wire Act.

“While the Wire Act is not a model of artful drafting, we conclude that the words of the statute are sufficiently clear and that all but one of its prohibitions sweep beyond sports gambling,” Engel wrote.

Websites catering to online gambling news carried articles headlined “New DOJ Wire Act opinion shakes maturing US gambling industry” and  “Can US online poker survive the new DOJ Wire Act opinion?

Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, applauded the most recent Justice Department Opinion.

“Our fight is about compassion and fairness for all Americans. Commercialized gambling is a big con game based on financial fraud and exploitation, and online gambling is the worst of all,” Bernal said.

“The recent Department of Justice opinion simply restores the Wire Act to its original strength for the benefit of all citizens. It helps to prevent state governments from forcing a Las Vegas casino into every home, office, dorm room, smart phone and tablet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued a memo saying the Justice Department will wait 90 days to implement the ruling to allow businesses time to adjust their operations.

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