USA Legal Online Casinos

In spite of a high-profile legal decision made by the federal government of the USA, legal online casinos are still available to Americans. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed in America in 2006, was a pretty loud bark with almost no bite to back it up. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, placing a real-money bet on a Web-based game of slots or blackjack is still legal for citizens of the USA.

Is there a catch? Absolutely – spend any time researching the legalities of online casinos and you’ll come to expect every rule to have its fair share of exceptions. This article looks at the specifics of American online gambling law as it relates to casino-style betting.

Editor’s note: Bear in mind that laws are likely to change over time, as is the way those laws are enforced. Also, understand that I’m not a lawyer. I’m a writer and amateur gambler with a little experience and a library card – I don’t have the training or the inclination to practice gambling law. That means check appropriate sources if you need legitimate legal counsel.

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Federal Gambling Law in the USA

Here’s a big statement you may not be expecting – no existing federal law in the United States makes gambling online illegal.

After the passage of the UIGEA, anti-gaming lawmakers were emboldened to the point that hearings were held on the issue of Internet betting. During that hearing, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (one of the most vocal opponents of legal online gambling) admitted that the US government could not prosecute citizens for placing bets online, saying “We have changed no laws related to what is lawful and what is not lawful for gambling.”

Let’s take it a step further – have any US citizens ever been arrested or charged with a crime for placing an online casino wager? Not as far as I can tell. If you find any relevant case law, please let me know and I’ll add the information here.

If all that sounds too good to be true, let’s look at what US federal restrictions on Web-based betting do exist.

It is explicitly against US federal law for websites to accept wagers on sporting events from American citizens. This comes from the Federal Wire Act of 1961, which has recently been interpreted by the Department of Justice to have no bearing on Web-based wagers on casino or head-to-head poker bets.

It is also explicitly against US federal law for a bank to knowingly handle a transaction between a US-based customer and a known Web-based gambling business. Basically, it’s illegal for your bank to handle a deposit or withdrawal to or from your casino account. This was the purpose of the much-grumbled-about UIGEA – notice that it is not a crime for the player to request or make the transaction, just for the bank to handle it.

Why this focus on so-called “payment processors?” Put simply, the processor is the lowest-hanging fruit for the government to go after. That’s because the federal government doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on when it comes to challenging the private gambling habits of its citizens. The intended result of this attack on banks was to make life difficult for Americans who gamble online – and the UIGEA has certainly accomplished that.

State Gambling Laws in the USA

If federal law was all that Americans had to consider, the legality of Internet gambling would be a lot easier to talk about. Unfortunately for me (and for some US-based gamblers), American state law is more restrictive in some cases than federal law.

So how tough are US state laws on Internet gambling enthusiasts? Some US states have laws explicitly outlawing all forms of online gambling. Residents of Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin are prohibited, by state law, from placing any type of bet over the Internet, regardless of federal law. Other states are less strict but still restrictive – in South Dakota, for instance, anyone in “the gambling business” is prohibited from placing Web-based bets, which is a really odd little law if you think about it.

The long and short of it is that some US citizens have to walk a thin line if they want to play a casino game online while acting within the confines of the law. What could happen to an American for breaking one of these state-based anti-gaming rules?

Good news – prosecution by a US state against an online gambler is a very rare event. I can find just two cases where an online gambler broke an existing law, and both come from politically-conservative states. A man in North Dakota was charged with illegal online gambling in 2003 and paid a fine of $500. Another case, involving a sports bettor in Oklahoma, resulted in long-term probation. Neither bettor spent time in jail – though probation and fees are a pain in the butt, they’re a fair sight better than a prison sentence.

Let’s take a longer look at this whole “anti-gambling state law” thing. What are the odds that a citizen placing an online roulette bet in one of the anti-gaming American states will get caught? Considering an extensive search of legal records revealed just two relevant cases, they’re so small as to resist analysis. How would this work, exactly? Is the state monitoring the online activity of every citizen? Are online casinos and poker rooms reporting their customers to state governments?

Of course not. Both men in the example above were caught in unique situations – one of them was heavily-involved in an underground network of online bettors that hardly resembles the majority of commercial sportsbooks and casinos most US customers join. The odds of being caught and prosecuted under these laws make it more likely that you’ll win a huge progressive jackpot than that your friendly state police will come knocking at your door.

Internet-based casino gambling has had a rough go of it in America the past few years. The passage of the UIGEA in 2006 and the Black Friday backlash of 2011 have done a lot to damage the reputation of legitimate online betting businesses. With state governments (and the federal government) looking for new sources of tax revenue, and some US states already relaxing their existing legislation, it’s clear that the legal status of Web-based betting in America is secure for some time to come.