Games of skill

Pennsylvania game of skill at Sunoco 280 N. Decatur St. in Strasburg Monday, June 10, 2019. Pennsylvania legislators are currently considering legislation that ban games of skill.

A Commonwealth Court judge Tuesday lifted a ban that had blocked Pennsylvania State Police from seizing Pennsylvania Skill machines.

Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler ruled that as the court works to decide the unanswered question -- if these machines are illegal according to the state Crimes Code -- the state police can seize the machines as part of its attempts to crack down on illegal gambling.

Pennsylvania Skill machines are slot-machine-style games that are unregulated, untaxed and operated by Georgia-based company Pace-O-Matic. These “games of skill” can be found by the thousands in bars, corner stores and fraternal organizations across the commonwealth and within Lancaster County.

Ceisler based her ruling off of Captain James Jones’s testimony last week that the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control has not directly targeted Pace-O-Matic’s Pennsylvania Skill machines.

The Pennsylvania State Police did seize eight Pace-O-Matic machines while investigating “suspected illegal gambling activity” at five bars in Dauphin and Cumberland counties in December, along with machines from two other manufacturers. After the seizures, Pace-O-Matic filed an emergency temporary injunction to prevent police from taking any more of their machines.

Before December, Jones said state police had only taken about six Pennsylvania Skill machines. For example, in February police shut down the 717 Social Club on 2nd Street in Columbia Borough for serving liquor and beer without a license, according to a state police report. A Pennsylvania Skill machine was seized as part of this investigation, which Pace-O-Matic did not contest because they do not want their machines used in illegal locations, Matt Haverstick, an attorney for the company, said in court last week.

Jones also testified that he believed this injunction puts police in jeopardy when investigating illegal establishments, out of fear that they may come across a Pennsylvania Skill machine.

Since Pace-O-Matic said it would not challenge these seizures as long as they are not directly targeted, and the small number of machines police seized prior to this, Cesiler “finds no improper conduct by the PSP that warrants the imposition of an injunction at this time.”

Pace-O-Matic filed an application following Tuesday’s ruling, asking the court to reconsider its ruling and clarify that Pennsylvania State Police refrain from seizing their branded machines from locations that only offer their machine.

Ceisler did add that she understood that until the Commonwealth Court answers whether these machines are illegal, Pace-O-Matic “may suffer harms to its reputation and property interests as a result of the seizures.” 

Haverstick, Pace-O-Matic’s attorney, said in a statement that Ceisler’s ruling presumes the machines are legal. But Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said the opposite: the ruling props up the law enforcement agency’s argument and shows the machines are illegal.

Despite the contradictory interpretations of Tuesday’s ruling, Ceisler did not rule on the legality of the machines. During a hearing last week in Harrisburg, the judge said several times she believed the Legislature, not the courts, should decide the legality of skill games.

The Commonwealth Court ruled in November 2019 that the games cannot be regulated under the Gaming Act.