In-Home Poker Illegal in South Carolina in 1802, 2012

Many states have some crazy, ancient laws on the books which no one would think of enforcing in the 21st century. For example, in Mississippi, cohabitation is punishable by a $500 fine and 6 months in prison. M.S. St. Section 97-29-1. South Carolina is no exception. Section 16-19-40 of the South Carolina Code, a modern version of a statute first enacted in 1802, makes playing cards in a “house used as a place of gaming” punishable by a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. With the increased popularity of poker, the statute could impose a problem if enforced.

But that would never happen, right?

Wrong. In South Carolina, we take our laws seriously.

In Town of Mt. Pleasant v. Chimento, No. 27197 (S.C. Nov. 21, 2012), the South Carolina Supreme Court was faced with a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute. The issue arose when the defendants were charged with violating the statute over a weekly Sunday night poker game among friends. Players would buy into the game for $5 and could purchase more chips as needed. The home owner would take a “rake” out of the pot to cover the costs of food and drinks. If the rake did not cover the expenses, then the “winners” would make a contribution to offset the costs. For reasons unspecified in the opinion, the authorities must have been alerted about this “gambling ring,” and the defendants charged. The defendants were convicted by the local magistrate. The circuit court, however, reversed the conviction, finding that it was not illegal to gamble on a game of skill and that a residence did not qualify as a “house used as a place of gaming.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court examined precedent and legislative history from the 1820’s and determined that a private residence could qualify as a house of gaming under the statute. Moreover, they disagreed with circuit court and found no distinction in the statutory text between games of skill and those of chance. In addition, the Court upheld the statute as the defendant lacked standing to challenge its constitutionality on void-for-vagueness grounds because their conduct “clearly” fell within its proscriptions.

While we here at Abnormal Use may abhor the statute, we must agree with the Court’s decision. The Court doesn’t write the laws, it interprets them. The legislature presumably had some legitimate purpose for crafting the statute (albeit 200 years ago), and it was the Court’s job to apply the statute to the facts of the case. Ridiculous law? Probably. Ridiculous result? Not based on the statutory language.

Seemingly outdated laws are on the books everywhere. It is the job of state legislatures – not the court – to repeal them when they are otherwise constitutional. In the meantime, check out the crazy laws in your state to avoid those potential hundred dollar fines.


  1. This is crazy, this is why laws should sunset to make sure that they stay up to date.