Maryland lawmakers approve fines on underage gamblers who sneak into casinos

Shortly before Christmas, security officers from Maryland Live Casino approached a young man — maybe too young — who had been playing slots inside the 21-and-older-only property. They asked for identification, and he produced a Maine driver’s license that appeared to have been altered, according to a report from state gambling regulators.

Police were called. Upon further questioning, the young man produced a Virginia driver’s license that showed him to be 18, the report says.

A surveillance review revealed that the teenager had jumped over a wall separating Bobby Flay’s all-ages burger joint from Maryland Live’s verboten slot machines. He was evicted from the casino, and that was that.

But under a bill that was unanimously approved by the Maryland state Senate this week, the 18-year-old gambler would be subject to a fine of up to $100 the first time he got caught in one of Maryland’s ­casinos.

The fine would rise to a maximum of $500 for a second offense. For a third violation, he could be fined $1,000 and required to participate in mandatory gambling addiction treatment. Someone under 18 would be sent to juvenile court.

See previous stories in an occasional series exploring the changing casino industry and gambling culture in Maryland.

After stalling in the General Assembly in each of the two years, legislation to hold underage gamblers accountable is generating considerable momentum in Annapolis. Following the Senate’s approval, sponsors of a similar bill in the House are optimistic that chamber will also pass legislation.

The Senate version passed just as the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency was finalizing consent agreements with three casinos, which were penalized for underage violations. Under the agreements, signed Thursday by state regulators, Maryland Live will pay $1,000 for a New Year’s Eve incident; Hollywood Casino in Perry­ville will pay $5,000 for a ­mid-December incident; and the Casino at Ocean Downs will pay $10,000 for two incidents, in July and September.

Last year, Maryland Live — the state’s largest casino — paid a $20,000 penalty, and Hollywood paid $10,000.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), whose district includes Maryland Live, said his colleagues have come to realize that underage gamblers — and not just the casinos — should bear responsibility for their actions.

“It’s no different than being under 21 and buying alcohol,” DeGrange said. “If they’re using a fake ID, they have some responsibility. . . . The casinos have been concerned that they’re taking the brunt.”

Joe Cavilla, general manager of the Casino at Ocean Downs, near Ocean City, said the threat of civil fines would probably help reduce the number of underage people attempting to get past security “as people become aware of what the law is — and what the repercussions are.”

A number of states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Missouri, have statutes in place to penalize underage casino gamblers. For the past two years, Maryland’s bills have died in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, of which DeGrange is a member. “I think we just needed more information,” he said. “Sometimes bills take a few years here.”

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) said he is hopeful the House will move on the legislation, of which he is chief sponsor.

“It’s actually a very important bill,” said Reznik, who sponsored the legislation the past two years as well. “The casinos are saying, ‘Please help us.’ ”

Statewide, there were 47 underage violations in 2013 and 30 in 2012, according to state regulators. Some of the offenders have used fake or borrowed IDs, and others never had theirs checked. Several jumped over walls or ducked under stanchions. One was an infant whose mother “was ‘waved in’ even though she was breast feeding at the time,” according to a state compliance report.

“Not all cases of people under the age of 21 on the floor are the same,” said Maryland Lottery Director Stephen Martino. “A nursing infant is no threat to gamble. We won’t levy a fine for that, but we mark it.” State regulators, Martino said, are most interested “in people under 21 who clearly want to get on the floor and gamble.” Keeping them out, he has said, is a pillar of the state’s responsible gambling efforts.

“If word gets out that the state is taking this seriously, and that we’re going to hold those trying to get on the floor accountable,” he said, “it will have a measurable impact.”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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