Mt. Pleasant v. Chimento Factual and Legal Summary:
Nathan Stallings leased a home in Mt. Pleasant where he lived with his fiancee and a roommate. He used an internet networking site to meet other poker players, and established a regular Sunday night game in his home. Players would buy into the poker game for a minimum of $5 and a maximum of $20.
At trial, defendants / respondents Robert Chimento, Scott Richards, Michael Williamson, Jeremy Brestel and John Willis were convicted in municipal court of violating S.C. Code Ann. 16-19-40(a) (2003) which made it unlawful to "play . . . in any house used as a place of gaming . . . any game with cards. . . ." after they were found playing Texas Hold'em and gambling in Stallings' home.
On appeal, the circuit court reversed respondents’ convictions finding they were entitled to directed verdicts or, alternatively, that section 16-19-40(a) was unconstitutional. The court further found -- based on expert testimony presented by the respondents -- that Texas Hold'em poker is a game of skill. The trial court had also held that there was no clear indication whether the legislature intended to criminalize only gambling on games of chance. However, the trial court judge declined to find section 16-19-40 unconstitutional. The circuit court reversed and found that the antiquated gambling statute was indeed unconstitutional.
The issues that came before the South Carolina Supreme Court were only two-fold:
(1) whether respondents were entitled to directed verdicts because betting money on a game of skill at a residence is not prohibited by section 16-19-40; and
(2) if respondents were not entitled to directed verdicts, should their convictions have been set aside because section 16-19-40(a) was unconstitutional?
The South Carolina Supreme Court in a 3-2 split decision reversed the circuit court finding that the "hopelessly outdated" statute, while needing modernization from the South Carolina legislature according to the court, was nevertheless not unconstitutionally vague. Additionally, the court noted that the poker activity was covered by the statute and that these defendants thereby lacked standing to assert a constitutional attack based on statutory vagueness. Finally, a plurality of the court opined that the qualitative amount of skill in a game such as poker was irrelevant under South Carolina law in order to determine whether such activity such as poker is unlawful gambling.
As a result, a slim and divided majority of the South Carolina Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the circuit court had erred in reversing respondents' convictions and thus that order on appeal was reversed.