Michigan State Government, Bar Owners At Odds Over Legality Of Bingo Games

Posted on October 26, 2019 - Last Updated on November 8, 2019

When it comes to gambling in the Wolverine State, it’s better not to assume. A division of the state government has provided a reminder of that fact by cracking down on “bar bingo.”

A lawsuit could decide the legality of the game. The plaintiffs in the suit allege their business has been harmed by the state’s enforcement of gambling law.

Why the state has started to police “bar bingo”

The state’s Liquor Control Commission put the kibosh on the games, declaring them illegal gambling. The establishments were offering the games without a license from the Michigan Gaming Control Board.

While the MGCB has no involvement in the dispute yet, the LCC has the authority to regulate the activity regardless. While the games award no cash prizes and require no wagers, the LCC states they are gambling because patrons pay to be on the bar’s premises.

The LCC not only shut down the games but has issued fines as well. Consequences for continuing to operate the games or non-payment of the fines could lead to the revoking of liquor licenses.

At least one of the establishments, Saugatuck Brewing Co., paid the fine without objection. While that worked in the state’s favor, other bars and pubs haven’t been so agreeable.

Lawsuit argues bingo games are merely promotional

Several of the establishments have filed a joint lawsuit against the LCC. They argue that because no money is involved in the games, they do not constitute gambling.

Involved owners state they do not charge patrons any more for cover charges, drinks or food whether they play the bingo games or not. While it could be argued prizes have monetary value, cash is not among the potential winnings.

Additionally, the plaintiffs state the crackdown has hurt their businesses. Many of the bars and pubs used the games as a way to boost business on slow nights.

The point of law that the suit is challenging the state on is due process. The plaintiffs allege that the state wrongly assumed its enforcement and interpretation of the law can’t be challenged by any of the establishments because Saugatuck paid the fine without objection.

The suit also alleges that the same law that allows other businesses to offer promotional games, like McDonald’s¬†Monopoly, should apply equally to bingo at bars, breweries and pubs. Bingo is no different from tabletop shuffleboard or trivia, the suit argues.

The schedule in the Kent County Court shows a hearing next month. Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office will represent the state in the bench trial.

The possible effects of the lawsuit

The lawsuit may be the only recourse for breweries in Michigan at this point. The suit has an element of risk to it, however.

If the court finds for the defendant, it would strengthen the state’s ability to regulate bingo games. Naturally, the plaintiffs could appeal, but in the meantime, the status quo would remain.

If the court finds for the plaintiffs, however, it could restore their ability to offer bingo and other promotional games. That, in turn, could set a precedent that might allow bars, breweries and pubs along with other dining establishments a seat at the table in future gambling expansion.

For now, the bar owners merely want the traffic they lost to the ban back. The state, however, is standing firm on its opinion.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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