Pennsylvania Online Poker Laws
Gambling has been an expanding industry in Pennsylvania for the last few years. There are more than a dozen state-licensed and regulated gambling establishments across the state, including 6 racinos, 5 stand-alone casinos and 2 resort casinos. Each of them is regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, established in 2004 and charged with the responsibility of licensing and supervising all casino gambling and slot machine provisions in the Keystone State.
As land-based poker games grew exponentially throughout the region, so did the popularity of online poker. But unlike some states in the US, Pennsylvania chose not to address the issue of internet gambling when the Department of Justice gave all states the right to script their own laws, for or against, internet poker and casino games. The lack of attention afforded the issue has given online poker players in Pennsylvania just cause to question the legality of internet games where real money play is concerned.
Legality of Online Poker in Pennsylvania
Is online poker legal in Pennsylvania? If it’s not explicitly legal, does that mean it’s illegal? And if so, is there a penalty imposed upon players who are caught committing unlawful gambling in the state? These are the questions so many online poker enthusiasts are seeking answers to throughout the Keystone State. It is our desire to provide some semblance of an answer to that question, but in order to do so, we must examine the Consolidated Statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Let us say, first and foremost, that we are not legal experts with a professional degree in constitutional terminology. As such, it is not our intention to give genuine legal advice, but rather offer an opinionated view of the state laws as they may pertain to online poker in Pennsylvania. For real legal advice, please contact a licensed attorney in your area who is more familiar with the full scripture of PA law. Secondly, having spent a great deal of time in Pennsylvania myself, I’d like to point out that it is a “Commonwealth” state, and the laws in such territories tend to be extremely outdated and often grossly vague in their definitions. Such is the case with Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes – Gambling
The following text is taken from Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes as it pertains to unlawful gambling and the penalties that may (or may not) be incurred. Some text has been condensed to maintain fluency, but the meaning has not been altered.
Unlawful: means not specifically authorized by law.
(a) Offense defined
A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree if he:
(1) intentionally or knowingly makes, assembles, sets up, maintains, sells, lends, leases, gives away, or offers for sale, loan, lease or gift, any punch board, drawing card, slot machine or any device to be used for gambling purposes, except playing cards;
(2) allows persons to collect and assemble for the purpose of unlawful gambling at any place under his control;
(3) solicits or invites any person to visit any unlawful gambling place for the purpose of gambling; or
(4) being the owner, tenant, lessee or occupant of any premises, knowingly permits or suffers the same, or any part thereof, to be used for the purpose of unlawful gambling.
(a.1) Electronic video monitor
A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he owns, operates, maintains, places into operation or has a financial interest in an electronic video monitor or business that owns, operates, maintains or places into operation or has a financial interest in an electronic video monitor:
(1) which is offered or made available to persons to play or participate in a simulated gambling program for direct or indirect consideration, including consideration associated with a related product, service or activity; and
(2) for which the person playing the simulated gambling program may become eligible for a cash or cash-equivalent prize, whether or not the eligibility for or value of the cash or cash-equivalent prize is determined by or has any relationship to the outcome of or play of the simulated gambling program.
Consideration associated with a related product, service or activity: Money or other value collected for a product, service or activity which is offered in any direct or indirect relationship to playing or participating in the simulated gambling program. The term includes consideration paid for computer time, Internet time, telephone calling cards and a sweepstakes entry.
Electronic video monitor: An electronic device capable of showing moving or still images.
Simulated gambling program: Any method intended to be used by a person interacting with an electronic video monitor in a business establishment that directly or indirectly implements the predetermination of sweepstakes cash or cash-equivalent prizes or otherwise connects the sweepstakes player or participant with the cash or cash-equivalent prize.
What does it all mean? Is online poker illegal in Pennsylvania?
First of all, § 5512 Lotteries, etc., defines unlawful as anything “not specifically authorized by law”. To that extent, online poker would be deemed unlawful by default since it is not explicitly authorized.
Part (a.1) of § 5513 is a key point of the law here, and only appeared in 2012 as an amendment by the lawmakers of Pennsylvania. An electric video monitor is “an electronic device capable of showing moving or still images”, which would clearly include a computer, mobile device or tablet. While it’s hard to follow the text of (a.1), if we break it down to show only the relevant verbiage, it would read as follows:
“A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he owns [or] operates… an electronic video monitor… for which the person playing the simulated gambling program may become eligible for a… prize…”
The owner and operator become guilty parties, and if you’re playing the ‘simulated gambling program’, you are in fact ‘operating’ the electronic video monitor, whether you own it or not.
But wait… Part (a) § 5513 defines a gambling offense as knowingly providing (as an owner or promoter) certain gambling amusements, but explicitly excludes “playing cards”. This is the closest definition Pennsylvania supplies for what gambling entails, and if cards are excluded, then playing online poker in Pennsylvania cannot be punishable by state law. It may not be legal, thanks to the lack of state authorization and regulation, but there seems to be no law prohibiting or penalizing the activity either.
Our conclusion would be that Pennsylvania residents are welcome to play online poker for real money.
Is Pennsylvania working to regulate online poker?
Yes! Well, sort of. State Representative Tina Davis proposed internet gambling bill HB 1235 over the summer, but it was pushed to the back burner almost immediately. Representative Tina Pickett, the Chairwoman of the Pennsylvania House’s Gaming Oversight Committee, explained that their department would prefer to see how online poker and casino games affect the bottom line of overall gambling revenue in New Jersey before moving forward with online gambling in Pennsylvania. The bad news – Pennsylvania won’t be enacting any online poker laws in the very near future. The good news – Pennsylvania is very interested in the concept of regulation, should it prove to increase tax dollars in other states.