Washington State Unveils Legal Online Poker Bill, Doing a Complete Turnaround

January 12th, 2015 | by Greg Shaun
Sherry Appleton Washington online poker bill

Representative Sherry Appleton’s Washington State online poker bill would both remove the felony charges for playing online and provide a regulatory framework for the game. (Image: Weedist.com)

Washington State poker players have, perhaps surprisingly to many, faced some of the strictest laws in the country against the online form of their favorite game.

In most of America, it’s often explained that while operating a real money online poker site or marketing one is illegal, there are no laws against actually playing the games, meaning players are doing nothing wrong by depositing and trying their luck.

But in Washington State, just playing the game is enough to make a poker aficionado considered to be a felon, by far the harshest criminalization of Internet play in the nation.

Reversal Imminent

It’s possible, however, that this approach could change in the coming year. A bill that was pre-filed for introduction last week by State Representative Sherry Appleton (D-23rd District) would undo the 2006 law that made playing online poker a class C felony, and would instead regulate the game throughout the state.

The bill, known as HB 1114, comes on the heels of efforts to decriminalize poker in the state over the past two years. Right now, players risk up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine just by logging into a real money poker site.

Most Details Up to State Gaming Commission

Under the new bill, which was expected to be introduced on Monday, businesses would be able to apply for licenses in order to operate poker networks or individual rooms.

The full regulations would be the responsibility of the state’s gaming commission, which would also be tasked with setting tax rates for operators. The bill would still allow authorities to crack down on operators who attempted to offer real money poker in the state without a license.

HB 1114 would only allow for online poker, and not for other forms of Internet gambling.

Interestingly, the bill does not include a “bad actor” clause, separating it from proposals in states like California and opening up the possibility for PokerStars to apply for a license in Washington. However, with many of the details of the law left in the hands of the Washington State Gambling Commission, it’s always possible that such a clause could be inserted later on if the legislation were to pass.

Tribal Interests, Card Rooms Not Sold Yet

The bill is largely the work of Curtis Woodard, who founded the Washington Internet Poker Initiative, and has been working to either legalize, or at least decriminalize, poker for Washington residents.

“This state allows us to play poker in Tribal casinos and licensed card rooms, but considers us felons if we play from the privacy of our homes on our computers,” Woodard told Online Poker Report. “This is not only silly, it is ineffective, as players continue to play on sites operated from outside the state’s reach, and without any real consumer protections.”

Woodard also noted that Appleton was the perfect sponsor for the bill, as she had previously sponsored bills that would have repealed the criminal sanctions on online poker play in the state.

It’s unclear what the chances are of Appleton’s bill gaining any traction in Washington State’s legislature. While it might seem strange to shoot for regulation in a state where online poker is currently a crime, the key may be convincing gaming interests that they can benefit from online poker.

Woodard says that tribes and card rooms should see online poker as a way to expand their brands, rather than as a threat to their existing businesses.

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