DiCristina ‘Poker Skill’ Case Denied US Supreme Court Appeal

supreme-courtThe conviction of Staten Island poker-game operator Lawrence DiCristina will stand after the United States Supreme Court declined on Friday to grant a writ of certiorari and listen to an appeal of the case.

The decision to decline the DiCristina case was quietly announced yesterday amid the Supreme Court’s regular review of cases appealed to it from lower courts for review.  Historically, the Supreme Court accepts less than 1% of the cases submitted to it for possible acceptance, meaning the case’s chances were already very slim.

DiCristina and another defendant were arrested and charged in August of 2011 for running a small, illegally raked poker game in a Staten Island, NY warehouse.  Both defendants initially pled guilty to avoid the specter of a possible ten-year prison sentence on the charge of operating an illegal gambling enterprise, a violation of the decades-old federal IGBA (Illegal Gambling Business Act) statute.

After being convinced of certain merits of certain possible elements of his defense, including poker’s “skill game” elements, DiCristina sought and was allowed to withdraw his initial guilty plea, at which time the case went to trial.  However, DiCristina was convicted in a jury trial on several gambling business charges, only to see presiding District Court Judge Jack Weinstein set aside the jury’s verdict.  (Reports stating that DiCristina was acquitted are factually incorrect.)

In his controversial reversal Weinstein noted that prosecutors had not proven their assertions that poker was specifically covered under IGBA as charged, and on which the prosecutors based their claim.  However, even in reversing the initial conviction, he noted that it might not matter, as under New York state law (instead of the federal IGBA statute), even skill-based gambling forms such as poker were likely illegal.

However, a US appellate court later overturned Weinstein’s decision, stating that IGBA indeed covered poker despite the statute’s lack of specificity.  The appellate court stated in its reversal, “Because we find that the plain language of the IGBA covers DiCristina’s poker business, we reverse the judgment of acquittal and remand to the District Court with instructions to reinstate the jury verdict, enter a judgment of conviction on both counts, and proceed with sentencing DiCristina,”

DiCristina and his attorneys then mounted their own series of appeals, first being ruled against by the same US appeals court, then attempting the last-ditch appeal to the US Supreme Court that was denied on Friday.

As it stands, the decision leaves the specific legal testing of poker’s skill-game elements untested in a court decision, since the original verdict was reinstated on more general gambling grounds.  The Supreme Court denial now means that DiCristina’s sentencing — for running a small game of three or four low-stakes cash-game tables with a tiny 5% rake — will now move forward.

That formal sentencing date in the case has yet to be set.

The Poker Players Alliance (PPA), which had assisted DiCristina in his defense, issued a statement bemoaning the lack of the appeals courts in addressing poker’s skillful nature.

According to PPA Executive Director John Pappas, “It is deeply unfortunate that yet another antiquated federal law targeting an unrelated problem is being applied to poker games, thus subjecting average American poker players to felony charges.  While neither the 2nd Circuit nor the Supreme Court made any sort of ruling regarding poker as a game of skill, which is a good sign, today’s Supreme Court announcement is a clarion call to overhaul our federal gaming laws.  The first priority item must be a clear definition of gambling that provides fair notice to the millions of Americans who play games of skill like poker each and every day.”

“Over the past few years,” Pappas continued, “numerous judicial rulings and academic studies have concluded that poker is clearly a game of skill.  We believe that this is clear evidence that poker should not be considered unlawful gambling under most state or federal laws.”

Pappas also added, “The PPA is proud to have supported Di Cristina’s fight for poker, and is disappointed in this outcome.  We will continue to advocate for a clear, federal definition of gambling so that others will have the freedoms that Di Cristina was denied.”

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