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Is Your March Madness Tournament Pool Legal?

Many believe this week is the greatest week in all of sports. Work efficiency goes in the can, attention is diverted, and more than 50 million red blooded Americans will be living and dying on whether the sophomore shooting guard from Dingleberry Tech can finish the back half of his two free throws to knock out a national power like Duke or Michigan State. Hopes that are so high in the opening round are often crushed like an egg in round two or three. This, my friends is March Madness. The thrill of not only watching your team play for it all, but also having the chance to win a little cash in your local pool is, in my opinion, one of America’s greatest sports traditions. But are these sports pools legal? Like any other question to a lawyer, the answer is going to be a resounding and useless, “it depends.” Wa wa wa… In all actuality the answer hinges on whether you pay to play.

If you are in a pool where everyone just plays for “fun,” and submits a bracket with no hope of sweet, sweet, beer money victory then you’re going to be ok and you haven’t done anything wrong, other than maybe be a little boring. It is highly unlikely that in this situation you’ll need to buzz your criminal attorney friend after being arrested for violating a Federal or State law or gaming regulation. No reason to get your Mom jeans in a bundle. As a law-abiding attorney, I reside in the village of Mom jeans basketball brackets.

Now, if you, like the other 49,999,995 American basketball tournament fans drop at least a twenty spot in support of your favorite round ballers, you could be in violation of a few Federal and State laws. Back around 1961 our friends up in DC decided to poo in America’s cheerios yet again (see prohibition) by passing the “Interstate Wire Act of 1961” coded as 18 USC 1084. In passing this law, these boring folks made it illegal and punishable by up to two years in the Federal poke to engage in the business of betting or wagering by using a wire communication facility for the transmission into interstate or foreign commerce bets or information assisting a bet. What the hell does that mean? May need a Federal criminal lawyer to figure it out. Where could we find one of those? It means that if you get on the phone, dial up your interweb, shoot a text to your buddy, send an IM, tweet, Facebook a friend, or use any other electronic method that hasn’t been ruled out of this statute, that you could be getting a visit from Federal Officer Friendly. My definition could be a little over or underbroad in reality but you get the gist. Technically you OR your buddy running the pool could get popped under this statute. In all seriousness though, this act was aimed at organized crime to shut down their book making ventures. In all actuality it probably was a decent thing.

What about your buddy that may think he’s a bookie or your favorite sports bar that hosts your favorite March Madness pool? Again, see above. They could also find trouble through the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. This Federal law, codified at 28 USC 3701, makes it illegal for a private individual to run a betting scheme based on a competitive game in which a professional or amateur athlete plays. What this statute also did was fill in gaps left by the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 with respect to intrastate (occurring wholly within a State) gambling activities. The Interstate Wire Act of 1961 only dealt with interstate gambling activities. In other words, the Feds can now slap around those that run our pools for activity completely within our respective State of residence. Organized crime, blah blah blah.

It’s 2014. Though my tech savvy is that of a newborn, the pools that I participate in (FOR FREE. COME ON PEOPLE.) pretty much all require online submission. As much as I’d like to chicken scratch in ANYONE BUT the University of Florida Lizards and submit my bracket by hand, I can’t. Online submission requirement has easily defeated my pencil and paper. What about those patron saints in the business of providing us the vehicle to satisfy our NCAA pool appetites? Is there anything else the Feds can use to get their fun crushing hooks in those connected to sports gambling? Yep. The “Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006” prohibits gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments from others for placing a wager by internet if that wager is illegal under other Federal or State law. So, though this law isn’t implicated unless other law provides a stepping-stone, it can still be used to shut down our favorite online betting sites or those considered to be engaged in the business of betting or wagering.

So we know the Feds aren’t a lot of fun. What about our home State? In Florida keeping a gambling house is illegal under Florida Statute 849.01. In plain English and in deliberate avoidance of lawyer chatter, anyone who has a gaming room or table in just about any shelter for the purpose of gaming or gambling for money is guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to five years in the State penitentiary. That’s no good but really it’s aimed at your bookie wannabe buddy so you’re still likely in the clear on a felony charge, at least with respect to this statute. Where you could get nailed, Mr. Casual McWagerson, is under Florida Statute 849.14 for specifically betting on sports. Under this statute, whoever bets money or other things of value upon the result of any trial or contest of skill, speed or power or endurance of human or beast is guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor. There’s a little more to the statute but you know where I’m going.

At the end of the day, neither the Feds nor the local boys in blue are likely ruffled over your March Madness pool. It’s tough to arrest 50 million plus people every March and quite frankly they have better things to do. Nonetheless, it is technically illegal to run a paid pool or participate in one. In closing, happy March Madness and best of luck to you, unless you’re at risk of beating me. If you do happen to make a trip to the pokey for your gambling shenanigans or any other tomfoolery, contact your favorite Tampa criminal attorney and lets see what we can do! For the record, said as it is for me to say it, looks like the Gators are the team to beat.