Bar owners fight state crackdown on bingo

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With bar bingo games in Michigan being declared illegal gambling by the state’s Liquor Control Commission, a group of bar owners is taking legal action.

Harmony Hall Brewing Company on Stocking Avenue NW has hosted the popular game for years, just like several other bars and breweries throughout Michigan. A typically slow Tuesday night for bars was made lively by the game, co-owner Heather VanDyke-Titus said.

But about a year ago, the LCC started coming into bars and breweries, telling them that it constituted gambling. 

“There’s no money exchanged, there’s no gambling. It really doesn’t make sense to us why we can’t do it and it certainly doesn’t make sense to customers,” VanDyke-Titus said. 

The basic component of gambling is that the person playing has money in the game. The LCC says the act of patronizing the bar constitutes payment.

VanDyke-Titus said the LCC can threaten to pull a liquor license if violations continue or fines are not paid. Harmony Hall was convinced to stop about a year ago, even though it had a loyal following that came out every week to enjoy the game and the fellowship.

Attorney Joe Infante is representing bars from around the state in a lawsuit saying the LCC’s action is frivolous and doesn’t give the bars due process. In the lawsuit filed in Kent County Circuit Court, he argues that bingo is allowed under the same state law that allows McDonald’s to offer Monopoly prizes. He said there are attorney general opinions that contradict the LCC’s claim as far back as 70 years. 

“You’re not charged any more for your food. The patron pays absolutely nothing to play bingo. It’s just something to attract people into the brewery, into the bar,” Infante said. 

Infante said it is a game like trivia or tabletop shuffleboard. 

“If you win the game, you might get a trinket,” Infante said. “I’ve seen it with little army parachute men that I played with as a kid. You might get a sticker from the brewery.” 

The LCC argues that since Saugatuck Brewing Company paid a fine last year and didn’t challenge it, the rule stands. 

“Because they didn’t challenge the violation, then no one else can challenge the law, is really what they’re saying — which any lawyer would tell you is a violation of due process,” Infante said. 

“About once a week, at least several times a month, we have somebody through the Facebook page asking if we’re doing it, or in person asking if we’re doing it and ask us if we’re going to bring it back. So yeah, it was really successful,” VanDyke-Titus said. “Honestly, it hasn’t gone back to the numbers that it was when we we’re doing bingo, so yeah, it has an impact on us for sure.” 

The case goes to the Kent County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Rossi in November, with the LCC being represented by the state Attorney General’s Office.

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