gambling law: an overview
Gambling, though widespread in the United States, is subject to legislation at both the state and federal level that bans it from certain areas, limits the means and types of gambling, and otherwise regulates the activity.
Congress has used its power under the Commerce Clause to regulate interstate gambling, international gambling, and relations between the United States and Native American territories. For example, it has passed laws prohibiting the unauthorized transportation of lottery tickets between states, outlawing sports betting with certain exceptions, and regulating the extent to which gambling may exist on Native American land.
Each state determines what kind of gambling it allows within its borders, where the gambling can be located, and who may gamble. Each state has enacted different laws pertaining to these topics. The states also have differing legal gambling ages, with some states requiring the same minimum age for all types of gambling, while for others, it depends on the activity. For example, in New Jersey, an 18-year-old can buy a lottery ticket or bet on a horse race, but cannot enter a casino until age 21. Presumably, the age 21 restriction is due to the sale of alcohol in that location.
A standard strategy for avoiding laws that prohibit, constrain, or aggressively tax gambling is to locate the activity just outside the jurisdiction that enforces them, in a more "gambling friendly" legal environment. Gambling establishments often exist near state borders and on ships that cruise outside territorial waters. Gambling activity has also exploded in recent years in Native American territory. Internet-based gambling takes this strategy and extends it to a new level of penetration, for it threatens to bring gambling directly into homes and businesses in localities where a physical gambling establishment could not conduct the same activity.
In the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was growing rapidly in popularity, online gambling appeared to represent an end-run around government control and prohibition. A site operator needed only to establish the business in a friendly offshore jurisdiction such as the Bahamas and begin taking bets. Anyone with access to a web browser could find the site and place wagers by credit card. Confronted with this blatant challenge to American policies, the Department of Justice and Congress explored the applicability of current law and the desirability of new regulation for online gambling.
In exploring whether an offshore Internet gambling business taking bets from Americans violated federal law, attention was focused on the Wire Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1084 (2000). The operator of a wagering business is at risk of being fined and imprisoned under the Wire Act if the operator knowingly uses a "wire communication facility" to transmit information related to wagering on "any sporting event or contest." 18 U.S.C. § 1084(a). An exception exists if that act is legal in both the source and destination locations of the transmission. § 1084(b). The Wire Act’s definition of “wire communication facility” appears to embrace the nation's entire telecommunications infrastructure, and therefore probably applies to online gambling. See § 1081.
The Department of Justice maintains that, under the Wire Act, all Internet gambling by bettors in the United States is illegal. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on Establishing Consistent Enforcement Policies in the Context of Online Wagers, 110th Cong., Nov. 14, 2007 (testimony of Catherine Hanaway, U.S. Attorney (E.D. Mo.), Dept. of Justice). The Fifth Circuit disagreed, ruling that the Wire Act applies only to sports betting, not other types of gambling. In re MasterCard Int’l Inc., 313 F.3d 257 (5th Cir. 2002).
In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which made it illegal for wagering businesses to knowingly accept payment in connection with unlawful Internet gambling (though it does not itself make Internet gambling illegal). 109 Pub. L. 109-347, Title VIII (Oct. 13, 2006) (codified at 31 U.S.C. §§ 5301, 5361–67). It also authorizes the Federal Reserve System to create regulations that prohibit financial transaction providers (banks, credit card companies, etc.) from accepting those payments. See 31 U.S.C. § 5363(4). This Act, along with threats of prosecution under the Wire Act from the Department of Justice, has caused several Internet gambling businesses to withdraw from the U.S. market.
In response, House Representatives introduced multiple bills in 2007 to soften federal Internet gambling law. If passed, the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act and the Internet Gambling Regulation and Tax Enforcement Act would license, regulate, and tax Internet gambling businesses rather than prohibit them from taking bets from the United States. Alternatively, the Skill Game Protection Act would clarify the Wire Act to exempt certain games such as poker and chess.
In addition to federal measures, some states have enacted legislation to prohibit some types of Internet gambling. In 2006, Washington State amended its Code to make knowingly transmitting or receiving gambling information over the Internet a felony. See Wash. Rev. Code § 9.46.240 (2006). Other states with similar prohibitions have made it a misdemeanor instead. See e.g., 720 ILCS 5/28-1 (2007).
States have not been particularly active in enforcing these laws, possibly due to a conflict with the dormant Commerce Clause doctrine. That doctrine theorizes that state law applying to commerce outside the state’s borders is unconstitutional because that power lies with federal, not state, government. In particular, federal preemption has obstructed states’ attempts to regulate gambling activity on Indian reservations within state borders. See Missouri ex rel. Nixon v. Coeur D’Alene Tribe, 164 F.3d 1102 (8th Cir. 1999). The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 25 U.S.C. § 29 (2000), governs gambling activity on Indian reservations, but the extent to which it and other federal gambling laws preempt state action in the Internet arena is uncertain.