Poker Players Rejected by U.S. High Court on Prosecutions

Poker players lost their bet at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices today turned away an appeal from a man convicted of violating a federal anti-gambling law by running a for-profit poker club in the back room of a New York City warehouse. A federal appeals court upheld the conviction, saying the 1970 law covers poker games.

Lawyers for the convicted man, Lawrence DiCristina, said the lower court decision bolstered the Justice Department’s “war on poker.” DiCristina’s appeal had support from poker advocates who said the lower court ruling poses a threat to a card game played by as many as 35 million Americans.

Under the ruling, “players involved in organizing or running games with even moderate stakes may be unwittingly committing federal felonies,” DiCristina’s appeal argued. Bridge and Scrabble players backed the appeal, saying their own pastimes now face questions as well.

The Justice Department urged the high court to reject the appeal, saying those fears are unfounded. The 1970 law at the center of the case applies only to gambling operations that have at least $2,000 a day in revenue or have been in operation on a regular basis for more than 30 days, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices.

The appeals court decision “in no way suggests that participants in a friendly evening of poker have committed a federal crime,” Verrilli argued in court papers.

334 Prosecuted

The federal government used the law to prosecute 334 people from 2007 to 2011, the last year for which Justice Department statistics are available. The numbers don’t indicate how many of the prosecutions involved poker.

At issue in the DiCristina case was whether poker qualifies as “gambling” under the 1970 law, part of a broader effort to crack down on organized crime. The measure lists nine examples of gambling, including slot machines, roulette wheels and sports betting.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal statute requires judges to look to the state-law definition of gambling. The appeals court said that, because poker constitutes gambling under New York law, the federal law applied to DiCristina’s case.

Poker games are generally legal under state laws as long as the person running the event isn’t taking money from the pots or charging the players, said Tom Goldstein, a lawyer who filed a brief backing DiCristina for the million-member Poker Players Alliance. Organizing a poker game for profit is a misdemeanor under New York law.

All-Night Games

DiCristina was part of a group that held twice-weekly games of Texas Hold ’Em in the Staten Island warehouse from December 2010 to May 2011. He hired armed security and used a waitress to ply customers with free food and drink during the all-night games, prosecutors said.

Total wagers amount to tens of thousands of dollars a night. DiCristina collected 5 percent of the pot, with some of that money going to the dealer.

A jury convicted DiCristina, and U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein set aside the conviction, saying his actions weren’t covered by the federal gambling statute. The 2nd Circuit then reinstated the conviction.

After the appeals court ruled, Weinstein sentenced DiCristina to one year of unsupervised probation. The statute carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The case is DiCristina v. United States, 13-564.

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