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Bartlett v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 25, 2019


          MCFADDEN, P. J., MCMILLIAN and GOSS, JJ.

          McMillian, Judge.

         Following a jury trial in February 2018, Ronnie Bartlett was convicted of one count of commercial gambling, one count of possession of a gambling device, and one count of keeping a gambling place. Bartlett now appeals, asserting that the trial court erred (1) in its charge to the jury; (2) in denying his motion for general demurrer and directed verdict of acquittal; (3) in denying his motion in limine to exclude certain evidence; and (4) in denying his motion to disqualify counsel. For the reasons that follow, we find the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support his convictions and therefore reverse.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the evidence adduced at trial shows that Bartlett co-owned a restaurant called Captain Jack's Crab Shack ("Captain Jack's") in Byron, Georgia with his wife. Captain Jack's included both a dining area and a separate game room that contained nine coin operated amusement machines ("COAMs").[2] In early 2015, Detective Melanie Bickford of the Byron Police Department began investigating Captain Jack's following complaints of "illegal gambling." Bickford was assisted by Officer Christine Welch, who worked undercover during the investigation.

         Bickford and Welch began their investigation by going to a gas station in another town to teach themselves how to play a COAM machine because neither had ever played before.[3] First, they inserted a twenty dollar bill into the machine, which gave them a certain amount of credits. They were then able to raise or lower how much they wanted to bet on each spin. The display screen had three digital slot-machine type wheels with pictures of fruits or numbers on them. They then hit a "spin button" and another button to "nudge" the wheels up or down in order to make a winning combination.

         After spending less than one hour to become familiar with the machines at the gas station, Welch went to Captain Jack's to play the COAMs there on six different dates in March and April 2015. Her mission was to secretly record portions of her play and attempt to receive cash payouts. On the first occasion, she put thirty dollars into the COAM.[4] After putting in the cash, she chose which game to play and then placed her wager, which had to be between twenty-five cents and five dollars. After spinning the wheels, she had to press a separate button to lower the wheels to make three matches across the middle of the screen. When she finished playing, she hit a button to end the play and then walked to a bar where someone handed her a certificate for the amount of credits she had earned. She then took the certificate to the cash register in the front of the restaurant where she received a two-dollar lottery ticket and the remaining amount in cash.

         Welch returned two days later, played sixty dollars, and won one hundred ninety dollars. She was given a forty dollar certificate and a one hundred fifty dollar certificate. When she brought the certificates to the front, she received a two-dollar lottery ticket, a five-dollar lottery ticket, and the remainder in cash. The third time, she played sixty dollars and cashed out with forty dollars, again receiving a two-dollar lottery ticket and the remainder in cash. This pattern continued at each of her visits. According to Welch, there were times that she won without having to hit the button to lower or raise the wheels, but she could not recall which of the nine COAMs it had happened on or how many times it had happened. One of the videos she recorded appeared to show another patron playing a COAM where she won without having to nudge the wheels.

         On May 5, 2015, Byron police obtained a search warrant for Captain Jack's and Bartlett's personal residence. Five agents from the Georgia Lottery Commission were onsite during the search of Captain Jack's. Police seized the COAMs from Captain Jack's and approximately $24, 000 in cash from Bartlett's home. Bartlett was ultimately charged in October 2016 with eight counts, including four counts of racketeering, one count of false writings, one count of commercial gambling, one count of possession of a gambling device, and one count of keeping a gambling place.

         At trial, in addition to Welch's testimony regarding the COAM operations, the State presented the testimony of Karen Briscoe, who had frequented Captain Jack's over the years. Briscoe testified that she had played the COAMs and would redeem her winnings for a combination of lottery tickets, meal vouchers, and cash. She also explained that as far as she could recall, she had always moved the wheels up or down in order to win and had never won without having to "nudge" the wheels.

         Tony Williams, one of the Georgia Lottery Commission[5] ("GLC") inspectors present when law enforcement executed the search warrant at Captain Jack's, confirmed that Bartlett had a valid location license.[6] He also determined that between October 2013 and May 2015, $1, 235, 268 in cash was placed in the COAMs at Captain Jack's, and Bartlett reported a net profit of $398, 176.[7] Following the inspection undertaken as part of the seizure, it was determined that the COAMs were operating only the appropriate types of games and displayed the required notices.

         The State also presented the testimony of Christopher Edwards, an expert in forensic accounting, who testified that after examining Captain Jack's business records, he identified $4, 400, 000 in cash received via the COAMs from October 2013 through May 2015, with $2, 400, 000 unaccounted for in the records. He concluded that the COAM redemptions must have been paid out in cash.[8]

         The State also introduced evidence of prior transactions through Sergeant Ashley Greer, [9] who testified that in 2010 he had previously investigated Captain Jack's to determine whether it was paying out cash redemptions. Through the use of a confidential informant, Greer determined that Captain Jack's had paid out between fourteen dollars and twenty-nine dollars in cash, along with a small sundry item, on three separate occasions. At the conclusion of his investigation, law enforcement seized approximately $3, 000 in cash from the restaurant's register, but did not seize the COAMs or make any arrests before closing the case.[10]

         The defense presented the testimony of several expert witnesses. Nick Farley, who owns one of the three independent testing laboratories used by the GLC, testified as an expert in electronic gaming testing, certification, and compliance. Farley explained that COAMs, by definition, have to have some skill. Before the GLC will consider granting a license, the COAM must be tested and certified by an independent testing laboratory. The testing ensures both that the game requires some skillful action on the part of the player and that it is communicating correctly with the GLC.

         In this case, Farley examined the COAMs seized from Captain Jack's and found no evidence of tampering. He also performed an analysis of the software that was used in each of the COAMs. He confirmed that all of the games were "nudge games," meaning a game in which wheels spin and stop on a non-winning combination before the player identifies whether a winning combination is possible by moving one of the available wheels up or down to align the symbols in a winning pattern. Based on his analysis, none of the COAMs seized allowed for a winning combination without the player making some move to align the symbols.[11] He explained that when Welch thought she had played a winning combination without any further player input, what had actually occurred is that the game offered what is called a "bonus feature," which is presented as a free game or a continuation of play.[12]He was able to discern the "free game" symbol on the video Welch had recorded of her play.

         Barlett also called Mark Nizdil to testify as an expert in the gaming industry. He explained that every COAM in the state continuously communicates data to the GLC, including how much money goes into the machine, the amount of plays that are made, and how many prizes are issued. Through his inspection, he determined that the games required some player assistance to make a winning combination. He explained that if anyone had attempted to manipulate the game in any way, the machine would have created a different signature number that would not connect to the GLC's required communication system.[13]

         The jury convicted Bartlett of only the three commercial gambling charges. The trial court sentenced Bartlett to a total of five years, with two to ...

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