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Harsher penalties wanted for landlords, renters who house illegal gambling rooms


By Annalisa Burgos

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    OAHU, Hawaii (KITV) — You might have noticed more illegal gambling rooms on Oahu are getting busted.

Over the past year and a half, the Honolulu Police Department says it’s averaging as many as seven busts a month — double what they did before the pandemic. So far this year, more than 28 rooms were raided in neighborhoods across the island — from Waianae to Waikiki to Hauula to Waimanalo.

But keeping them closed is another story. Now, Honolulu law enforcement agencies are getting creative to stop the rise of what some people call “hubs for criminal activity.”

“It’s sad because a lot of hard working families who have a lot of elderly, families, elderly communities, people are going into their home, stealing things, breaking into their cars,” said Kalihi resident Keali’i Lum, who knows of 30 active illegal game rooms in his neighborhood – he says one even reopened after police raided it last month.

Lum believes it’s a slap in the face of officers, while criminals get a slap on the wrist. The problem he says is owners have backup machines.

“Every owner has maybe one machine in each game room so that if they do get caught, it’s not like it’s hurting their pocket, because they still have their games in other game rooms,” Lum said.

HPD says it’s monitoring anywhere between 60 to 80 active game rooms, but the actual number is believed to be much higher.

The machines themselves are arcade games or as crude as a computer screen with a plywood frame.

“It could be as simple as video the machine is modified, to take money, chance based, and offer rewards, that’s what makes it illegal.” said Lt. Michael Brede, head of HPD’s Gambling Detail.

He says arresting owners can be difficult because investigations are labor intensive. “If it was deemed that the machines were illegal, simple possession, that would make it a lot easier for us.”

Another problem– there’s no incentive for a landlord to stop renting to an illegal game room operator – especially if they’re getting three times the average rent. Lum says he’s been offered $6,000 a month to house a game room.

Plus, the tenant listed is not the actual owner – a tactic used to avoid punishment.

“They just change the lease agreement from the person who got caught and running the game to somebody else’s name. Because the first the first time they get caught, it’s just a warning,” he said.

HPD and Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm are working on harsher penalties for landlords and renters – including losing their property.

“We’ve got to somehow make it uncomfortable for a building owner, to let their property be used for illegal activity. And so maybe changing some of the laws to felonies,” Alm said, who notes the crimes are misdemeanors. “We’re looking at the nuisance abatement laws, we’re looking at the asset forfeiture laws, we’re looking at maybe some future legislation, either an ordinance at the City Council, or statute at the legislature.”

Lt Brede says the community can help by reporting these businesses to police and their elected officials.

“You have any illegal activity going on literally yards away from someplace that you know, educates or teaches or watches over children,” he said. “There’s been murders and assaults. There’s been thefts, there’s been drug activity, all related to different game rooms that have been reported in the past couple of years. So it’s not a harmless activity.”

To report suspicious gambling activity, call the HPD Narcotics/Vice Division, 723-3933, or Crime Stoppers, 955-8300. Callers can request to remain anonymous.

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