Can You Get Arrested for Gambling Online?

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More and more countries around the world are becoming more tolerant towards online gambling. Many have even regulated internet gambling so that they can earn tax revenue from it.

However, a fair number of countries are still intolerant towards this activity. The United States is one of the best examples of this fact.

The American government doesn’t completely ban online casino games, poker, and sports betting. But they do have restrictive laws against the matter.

If you’re a US resident, you may have questions on if you can still gamble online without being arrested. I’ll discuss this matter by covering the federal stance on online gambling along with how different states view the matter.

What Is the Federal Stance on Internet Gambling?

The United States government doesn’t deem online gambling to be illegal. They have, however, enacted laws that make it tougher for Americans to place online bets.

The Federal Wire Act of 1961 came long before the internet was available. It outlaws gambling operators from offering services (via wire) across state lines.

The Wire Act should, in essence, ban online gambling. However, it hasn’t really come into play much since being passed.

In 2011, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) interpreted that the federal Wire Act only applies to sports betting. They revised their statement (under a different administration) in 2019 to claim that the act applies to all forms of internet gambling.

However, several states have sued the DoJ on their amended opinion. Up until now, they’ve been successful in keeping regulated online sports betting, casino games, and poker alive.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 serves as a second major piece of internet gaming legislation. It states that online gambling businesses can’t offer their services where doing so is illegal.

Outside of when the DoJ went after black-market poker sites in 2011, the UIGEA has had little impact on American internet gambling. Its main accomplishment was convincing prominent payment processors (e.g. Neteller) to vacate the US market after 2006.

Like the Wire Act, the UIGEA is a vague law that doesn’t confirm whether online gambling is legal or illegal on a federal level.

Laws Change From State to State

Each American state has the right to legalize major forms of online gambling, such as casino games, sports betting, and poker. Many states have already taken advantage of this liberty—especially when it comes to sports gambling.

Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada were the first three states to legalize some form of internet gambling. Over a dozen more states have since followed them.

Others aren’t so tolerant towards internet gaming. Some states have even gone so far as to include language in their constitution that deems online gambling illegal.

Louisiana is in this category. Their law states:

“[Illegal] gambling by computer is the intentional conducting of any game or contest whereby a person risks the loss of anything of value in order to realize a profit when accessing the Internet, World Wide Web, or any part thereof by way of any computer […].”

Washington has not only declared online gambling illegal, but also that their residents can face felony charges for engaging in it.

Luckily, the Evergreen State has never acted on this law. But any WA law enforcement agency could technically bring legal action under a valid case.

A number of other states have no stance on the matter. Ohio, for example, doesn’t mention anything about internet gambling being illegal in their laws.

These “grey markets” draw offshore casinos, poker sites, and bookmakers. Unregulated operators feel entitled to serve Americans in such states until more-definitive laws are in place.

Certain Countries Also Ban Online Gambling

By the world’s standards, the United States is one of the toughest countries on internet gambling. They’ve taken the time to draft legislation that discourages operators and people from engaging in this activity.

However, the federal government hasn’t gone as far as to actually make online gambling illegal. They instead let states decide how to act on the matter.

Some countries, though, do outlaw internet gambling:

  • Brunei
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea
  • Qatar
  • Singapore
  • United Arab Emirates

Much like the state of Washington, these nations make no qualms about deeming online gambling to be illegal for both residents and operators. North Korea has even gone as far as to put harsh punishments in place for those caught using betting sites.

Most countries go the opposite way and take a progressive approach to the subject. But you can see that some nations are still quite conservative with regard to gambling.

States Almost Never Arrest Online Gamblers

Washington State might seem like an extremely scary place for online gambling enthusiasts to live. However, nobody within this state has ever been charged for placing online bets.

In my 15 years of covering the subject, I’ve only seen one story where somebody was arrested for illegal internet gambling.

Oklahoma City police officer Roland Benavides was charged with violating the Sooner State’s anti-gambling laws. But he wasn’t just logging on to an offshore sportsbook or poker site.

Instead, his case involves far more-unique circumstances. He placed online bets with an Oklahoma bookie named David Tune, who operated a horse racing betting website for locals.

As you can see, Benavides wasn’t gambling online under normal circumstances. He was betting through a bookie’s makeshift website.

Of course, precedence can be broken. Oklahoma could suddenly start arresting more internet bettors. But history shows that neither Oklahoma nor any other state is likely to do so in the near future.

Governments Are Mostly Concerned With Deterring Operators

The federal and state governments aren’t interested in filling jails with online gamblers. Their law enforcement agencies have much more-important crimes to worry about.

Instead, most anti-internet gambling legislation is aimed at deterring unapproved operators. The federal government and many states dislike offshore bookmakers for two main reasons:

  • Regulated betting sites could take advantage of problem gamblers without consequences.
  • Governments like to collect tax revenue on gambling that happens in their territories.

Regarding the first point, politicians often demand that licensed internet gambling sites provide resources for problem bettors. They want to ensure that their online markets remain entertaining and not sources of misery for addicts.

Unfortunately, some offshore bookmakers could care less about this matter. They’re concerned with profits, and they don’t have to answer to politicians.

As for the second point, governments need incentive to approve different types of gaming. They want to collect a percentage of operators’ revenue in the form of taxes.

They can’t do this with offshore sites that operate out of Antigua or Costa Rica. This is where regulated markets with licensed operators become attractive to lawmakers.

Of course, every state wants their citizens to follow laws. If they’ve outlawed internet gambling, they want their residents abiding by the rules.

But state governments and federal lawmakers aren’t interested in pursuing those who bet illegally online. They merely want to discourage people from engaging in this activity where it’s unlawful.

Is It Safe to Gamble Online?

If you live in a state where internet gambling is either illegal or a grey area, you can never be sure what will happen when you start betting online. But if I were betting on this matter, I’d suggest that you’ll be perfectly fine to gamble online no matter where you are in the US.

Of course, you’re much better off if you live in a regulated state (e.g. New Jersey) and stick to licensed operators. You’re perfectly within the bounds of the law in these situations as long as you’re of age and not on a self-exclusion list.

You’re likely even fine if you live in a grey market that doesn’t have anti-internet gambling legislation. A state can’t legally charge you for a crime that doesn’t exist.

The only situation I’ve seen where somebody was actually arrested for betting online was the case of Renaldo Benavidez. But his situation was an unusual one that involved placing internet bets through a local bookie.

Again, nothing is ever guaranteed when it comes to unlawful online gambling. But I’m almost 100% certain that you won’t be arrested anywhere in the US for enjoying this activity.

Conclusion

One day, you may not have to wonder if it’s okay for you to bet online. Numerous states have legalized one or more forms of internet gambling, or at least have legislation that could pass in the near future.

For now, though, certain states still carry a jaundiced view towards this type of betting. A few have outlawed online gambling in hopes of deterring both their residents and offshore operators.

But based on the precedent set so far, you’re almost guaranteed to be able to gamble online and get away with it. American law enforcement agencies have much more to worry about than Joe Sixpack betting $50 at a Costa Rican-based sportsbook.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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