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County enforcement of game room regulations halted for now

Oops.

A quest by the county and city to crack down on illegal game rooms has hit a legal roadblock after a civil court judge granted a temporary restraining order barring Harris County from enforcing strict, new regulations.

The city had been poised to piggyback on the county’s rules under a new state law. Instead, its lawyers will join forces with the County Attorney’s Office to defend them.

At the request of a game room owner, state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer granted the restraining order late Friday, the day before the county’s regulations were set to take effect. A hearing has been set for March 14.

Lawyers for Altaf Makanojiya, 31, a game room owner and supplier of video poker machines known as “eight-liners,” sought the temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction against regulations Harris County Commissioners Court adopted in December for establishments housing six or more video poker machines.

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Eight-liners are legal in Texas, but game room operations that award more than a few dollars in prizes are not. Officials for years have condemned the establishments as hotbeds for illegal gambling, armed robberies and other criminal activity.

Under the regulations in question, game rooms operators must obtain permits, pay a $1,000 annual fee, shut down between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. and are banned from requiring a membership for entry, a practice officials say keeps police officers out. New game rooms must be located at least 1,500 feet from schools, churches and residential neighborhoods.

See here for the background, and here for a recent Chron story about the city/county enforcement agreement. Houston adopted an ordinance regulating game rooms six years ago, which among other things had the effect of causing some game room operators to relocate outside city limits. That made Harris County lobby the Legislature to pass a law giving it enforcement capabilities, which it got last year. The county’s new regs allowed for cities to opt in and team up with them on enforcement, which is what Houston did. Now we wait for the judge to sort it out before that goes into effect. I personally see nothing nefarious about the new regulations, but you never know what will happen with a lawsuit like this.

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