Court shuffle: Willacy game rooms still open
SEBASTIAN — Early this year, residents such as Joe Salinas thought they drove a horde of game rooms out of this tiny rural hamlet some were calling “Little Las Vegas.”
But armed with temporary restraining orders, four game rooms continue to operate despite a bold, new Willacy County ordinance aimed to regulate them in the vast unincorporated areas.
“ They’re like cockroaches,” resident Joe Salinas said yesterday of the 8-liner game rooms that squeezed into the narrow streets. “You can’t get rid of them.”
For five months, the courts have kicked around the four game room cases.
Since September, the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost have languished in federal court.
Now, they are back in state District court.
“ There’s a lot of court shifting,” resident Joe Salinas said yesterday.
In September, Ricardo Morado, the attorney representing Willacy County, requested the cases be moved from state court to federal court because their due process arguments constitute federal claims.
In federal court, the cases were set for a Dec. 27 hearing.
However, on Dec. 14, the county agreed with the game rooms that the cases be returned to the 197th state District Court, where a court date has not been set.
“ It’s confusing — it’s frustrating,” Salinas, who has helped lead a push to drive game rooms out of town, said. “Hurry-up-and-wait is getting old.”
Despite the changes in venue, the four game rooms have continued to operate as they have for five months.
“ They are busy — all of them,” Salinas, a radio technical director, said. “The traffic is continuous. I would guess a lot of them are from other towns. They go from one game room to another.”
In August, state District Judge Migdalia Lopez granted the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost their requests for temporary restraining orders, allowing them to re-open until their cases go to trial.
Then last month, authorities raided the Silver Outpost after an undercover operation found it illegally dealing out cash prizes.
As a result of the raid, the game room shut down, leading the other three eight-liner arcades to temporarily close their doors.
Back in business
Soon, the Silver Outpost had reopened as a result of its temporary restraining order.
“ It’s kind of like slapping us in the face,” Sheriff Larry Spence said yesterday. “You raid it and two days later they open up again. You raid one, catch them doing something illegal and if they get the machines back and the mother board, they’re back in business until we go to court.”
Like Salinas and many Sebastian residents, Spence is still waiting for that court date.
In this tiny farming community, residents have been living alongside game rooms for more than two years.
That’s when about 10 game rooms opened up, many near homes.
“ It’s the location of these establishments,” Salinas said. “They’re right there in town, east, west and north.”
Long hard battle
Early this year, it appeared as if Spence had won his long battle to drive game rooms out of the county.
After years of pushing for a law to regulate game rooms, county commissioners approved a tough, new ordinance aimed at the vast unincorporated areas in February.
Under the ordinance, the county required the game rooms to re-apply for permits to operate.
After the sheriff’s department reviewed their applications, the county granted permits to three game rooms.
So game room owners argue the county unfairly rejected their applications, denying them their due process rights.
Then in August, Lopez granted the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost their requests for temporary retraining orders.
But the courts have yet to rule on the game rooms’ future.
Like some residents, Salinas wonders how long the wheels of justice will turn.
“ I don’t think the game rooms are going anywhere,” he said. “They’ve got it made here with all the money they make. I wonder if they’re trying to out-wait the community.”
After years of battling eight-liner arcades in this rural area, Spence has not given up the fight.
“ We continue to do our work,” Spence said, referring to ongoing investigations. “Who knows, we might be shutting down another one soon.”