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Ban on electronic skill games discriminates against minorities, Roanoke store owner claims

Ban on electronic skill games discriminates against minorities, Roanoke store owner claims

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An Asian American convenience store owner is asking a Roanoke-area judge to stop enforcement of a statewide ban on electronic skill games, saying the measure discriminates against him and his customers.

Falu Patel filed a request for a temporary injunction Wednesday, two months after a state law took effect that required the removal of games often found in convenience stores, gas stations, truck stops and some restaurants.

Players feed money into the electronic machines and, based on their skill level, can win prizes that are traded in for cash.

State legislators who implemented the ban called the games “sleazy” and “unseemly,” the petition states, indicating a bias against their low-income and minority customers. At the same time, the General Assembly passed laws that expanded other forms of gambling such as casinos, sports betting and an expansion of horse racing facilities.

The customers of Patel’s stores — and many others like them — are frequently disadvantaged minorities and “have unequal access to goods and services as a consequence of racial and ethnic discrimination in retail settings,” his filing states.

The complaint asks a circuit court judge to find the ban unconstitutional and enter an injunction that would stop its enforcement.

“It is appalling to us that here in the year 2021, we are still seeing affirmative acts of discrimination through the legislative process,” Patel’s attorneys, Louis “Mike” Joynes and Stephen Heretick, said in a news release issued after the filing.

Filed in Roanoke County Circuit Court, the complaint is against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell and Tim Spencer, city attorney for Roanoke.

A spokeswoman for the ABC, which previously regulated the games in stores licensed to sell alcohol, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

In May, the CEO of the ABC authority sent a letter to all businesses that hosted the games, instructing them to warehouse the machines or move them to other states that allow them.

“We know that transitioning from an enterprise that is currently lawful to one that becomes unlawful with the turning of the page on the calendar is not easy,” Travis Hill wrote.

When the ban took effect July 1, ABC lost its authority over the games. The attorney general’s office and local commonwealth’s attorneys and city attorneys will be responsible for enforcing the ban, according to Hill’s letter.

Herring’s office declined to comment, saying it had not seen the lawsuit. Spencer said the same; Caldwell could not be reached.

In late June, the Roanoke-based Asian American Business Owners Association filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, asking for an investigation of its allegations of racial discrimination.

“In recent years, gaming has been embraced by the commonwealth when it is enjoyed by the privileged in fancy casinos or by children in ‘family entertainment centers’” that are exempt from the ban, the complaint stated. “But that very same activity is not acceptable when offered by Asian American-owned convenience stores or enjoyed by minority or marginalized populations.”

At least two other lawsuits have challenged the law’s constitutionality.

In a Greenville County case that remains pending, a business owner claimed that the ban violated his free speech and due process rights. And in 2020, a case that alleged discrimination against Muslim-owned convenience stores was settled in Norfolk Circuit Court.

Patel’s complaint describes him as a prominent owner of convenience stores in the Roanoke Valley and beyond. Names of the businesses were not available.

Since the ban took effect, Patel has unplugged the skill games in his stores, where they remain, Heretick said.

The games are profitable for both store owners and the state. More than $150 million in taxes on the machines was collected statewide in the year before the ban took effect, according to the lawsuit.

In their news release, Joynes and Heretick said “we seek the court to determine what we already know, that the skill games ban was created based on a racial purpose, and with unconstitutional discriminatory intent.”

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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