Due to recent rulings by the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court in a nearly identical South Georgia case, the case against Ronald Ridley and Mary Ellen Layton will have to be dismissed, according to District Attorney, Jack Browning.
Ridley, along with Mary Ellen Layton, had been charged in a multi-count Haralson County Grand Jury indictment on charges of violating Georgias Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act related to numerous counts of commercial gambling, theft by conversion, keeping a gambling place, and violation of gambling prohibition.
The indictment was based on evidence that Ridley and Layton had allegedly allowed illegal payments of cash for successful plays on coin operated amusement machines (COAMs), commonly known as video card game machines, owned by and under their control. The lucrative COAMs were located in Ridleys Quickstop, Feed Store, and Get-n-Go stores. Shortly after the GBI investigation that resulted in the criminal charges against Ridley and Layton, Ridleys license to operate his COAM business was revoked by the Georgia Lottery Commission for rule violations.
Browning explained that a 2018 South Georgia case brought against a restaurant owner in Bryon, Georgia, involving nearly identical facts, charges, and evidence, and who was convicted of the charges, was recently overturned. In that case, the Georgia Court of Appeals, interpreting Georgias laws on gambling and COAMs, ruled that the unlawful act of paying out cash for successful COAM plays, instead of store credit as the law requires, does not turn a COAM itself into an illegal gambling device. The ruling had fatal consequences for the case against Ridley and Layton, Browning stated.
That ruling effectively gutted the entire GBI investigation and case against Ridley and Layton. Browning explained that, just like the South Georgia case, Ridley and Layton were accused of unlawfully paying cash instead of store credit for successful COAM plays. That type of activity, according to previous court rulings, made a COAM an illegal gambling device and was essential to proving charges such as commercial gambling, gambling device possession, and keeping of a gambling place, which were the primary charges against Ridley and Layton.
Because of the Court of Appeals ruling, Browning explained, evidence of cash payouts now is not enough to prove the gambling charges as alleged in the indictment against Ridley and Layton that the two allegedly engaged in illegal commercial gambling by using the COAMs as gambling devices due to paying out cash. In other words, now, in light of the recent ruling, just because they were allegedly unlawfully paying out cash, that did not make them in possession of a gambling device, which was essential for the state to prove the charges in the indictment.
All of the charges in the indictment began with, and were predicated on, their allegedly using the COAMs in their stores as illegal gambling devices by paying cash instead of store credit for successful plays on the machines, Browning explained. Browning stated that, at the time the matter was investigated and submitted to the Grand Jury, the law had been interpreted one way, but now it appears the appellate courts are going in a different direction. The Court of Appeals decision in the South Georgia case seemingly went against its previous decisions concerning COAMs, and the Supreme Courts decision last week to allow the Court of Appeals decision in the South Georgia case to stand effectively made the ruling the law of the State, Browning added.
Browning concluded, simply put, that ruling puts me in the position of either I can dismiss the charges, or a trial judge will have to. So, while I may disagree with the rationale and decision of the appellate courts on this issue, as it seems to be inconsistent with their previous decisions on how COAMs may be used, and how violations may be prosecuted, as an officer of the Court I respect the decision and will dismiss the case against Ridley and Layton in accordance with that ruling.
(This article was released by the office of Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit, District Attorney, Jack Browning)