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Sandpoint Grad Night casino games may go

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | June 30, 2010 9:00 PM

SANDPOINT - A popular high school graduation event faces the ax although organizers contend it is legal.

Grad Night has been an ace in the hole for community members who want to make sure seniors stay out of trouble on graduation night.

But a casino games event, one of the reasons for Grad Night's popularity, is being scrutinized by police.

Authorities told Grad Night organizers this month they are not allowed to have casino games because state code prohibits gambling, even if the money generated is used for a good cause.

Organized by parents concerned about teens drinking and driving on graduation night, Grad Night is a non-alcoholic venue for graduating seniors. High school graduates are given gifts valued at more than $75, as well as food and entertainment in lieu of hanging around on the streets or partying on graduation night.

Grad Night board members question the call to outlaw their casino event, which is one of the more popular events of the night.

"They say it's gambling, but it's really not," Grad Night organizer Sheri Jones said. "The kids are not paying to play."

Students pay admission and get raffle tickets for gifts throughout the evening with a chance to win a computer at the end of the night - usually around 4 a.m.

"Everything in there is free," Jones said.

Because students earn prizes based on their performance at the casino, the games raised eyebrows with police.

Sandpoint Police Chief Mark Lockwood advised committee members to contact the Idaho State Lottery with questions. Until then, Grad Night casino games have been shuttered.

The decision to outlaw the games came on the heels of a similar prohibition of a poker tournament that raised money for the local junior tackle football program.

Jack Knaggs, one of the presidents of the football league, said the group's Texas hold 'em tournament raised more than $1,000 last year for junior tackle football. The money is used for scholarships, equipment and the cost of using football fields on game day.

Knaggs said the group hoped to raise more at this year's poker tournament.

"We anticipated raising $1,500," he said.

This year, however, the football board was visited by Lockwood, who advised the board that the protocol used in the tournament falls under a state ruling that describes illegal gambling.

The group countered. Why are others allowed to play, and we cannot?

The query led police to the Grad Night games.

By his interpretation of state law, Lockwood said, Grad Night's casino games are illegal.

"As I read state code," he said. "They are outside of that. They are gambling for a prize and paying admittance."

Carla Fister, who chaired this year's Grad Night committee, said 210 students participated last month, receiving gifts donated by the community.

There is a rub: Some students received gifts based on how well they played casino games.

That makes the activities illegal, according to Lynette Craven, the Idaho State Lottery's charitable gaming coordinator.

"If you pay to participate and win prizes based on your play, it's considered gambling," Craven said.

Casino games are not illegal if they follow state code, she said.

"You can do casino-style games and award no prizes based on play," she said. "It would strictly be for entertainment."

If prizes are given based on performance at a blackjack table, however, the game is illegal, she said.

Although raffles are legal, they require a raffle license under some circumstances, she said.

She advised organizers check www.idaholottery.com, or to call the commission for further clarification.

Lockwood lauds the Grad Night committee for their work, and its results: Keeping teens safe.

He also asks that future Grad Night committees contact the commission.

"It falls on their lap more than mine," he said.

If the commission blesses a community event, Craven said, it will contact area law enforcement to make sure it is in the loop.

"We can offer suggestions on how they might still be able to do it," Craven said. "We would probably contact the chief of police and explain it to him."

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