Inconsistent rule enforcement, confusion lead to casino conflicts


Bob Woolley ducked into the Cannery Casino in North Las Vegas to grab a snapshot for the "guess the casino" feature on his poker blog.

He wound up in a back room with security guards who objected to Woolley shooting a decorative mural on the casino wall.

The experience left him shaken, wondering why something thousands of visitors and locals do every day in casinos earned him the unwanted escort by armed guards.

"I acknowledge their right as a private company to have stupid policies," said Woolley, 47, of Las Vegas. "But that doesn't give them the right to kidnap me."

There's a long history in Las Vegas of customers being detained by casinos, despite untold amounts of money casinos have spent on legal defense and settlements.

Woolley's is an example of how running afoul of often vague or inconsistently enforced casino rules can quickly escalate from an exchange of words with security guards to an unwanted trip to a casino detention area.

The age of cheap and easy digital photography mixing with unclear protocol for shooting pictures in casinos creates even more potential for conflict.

Rules that restrict benign activity like personal photography are a throwback to shadier days when merely visiting a gambling hall could be perceived as evidence of moral weakness. In other cases, rules poorly understood by casino staff and customers or inconsistent enforcement cultivates an atmosphere ripe for confrontation.

Rex Taylor blogs under the name Vegas Rex and wrote about Woolley's Cannery conflict.

"It is a very, very dangerous precedent," said Taylor, 40, of Las Vegas. There's demand from the public for impromptu photos in casinos here, he said. "One of these days it is not going to be just an inconvenience. Somebody is going to be harmed."

Taylor's blog features photos of everything from casino construction sites to changes in poker rooms. He has taken thousands of photos in casinos throughout Las Vegas and has chronicled official reactions ranging from encouragement to threats of violence.

Although many casino security guards are polite and encouraging, Taylor said plenty are ignorant of either laws or company policies.

"If it is not explored, people are going to get harassed, they are going to be falsely imprisoned," Taylor said. "It can escalate very quickly."

The spread of digital cameras and software has made it easy for people to distribute pictures of their Las Vegas exploits. That means greater potential for confrontations over an individual's right to personal photographs and casino owners' rights to enforce rules on their properties.

"Should the general public worry about this? Only if they actually care about their freedom and safety," Las Vegas attorney Robert Nersesian said.

The attorney recalled a 2003 case at Mandalay Bay that started with casino security detaining a customer. In that case Mandalay Bay security guards accused card-counter Richard Dougherty of battery, resulting in his arrest.

After he dined in a casino restaurant, Dougherty was approached by a casino executive who told him he would be banned from the property. But when Dougherty tried to leave he was blocked by security guards who handcuffed him and took him to a detention cell, according to press reports from the subsequent trial.

When police arrived, they refused to take a complaint from Dougherty related to the detention and instead charged him with battery, resisting incarceration and trespassing.

The charges were only thrown out after a videotape surfaced and debunked casino workers' claims that Dougherty had acted violently. Although Dougherty was cleared of any wrongdoing, the incident cost him thousands of dollars in attorney's fees and travel expenses.

"I felt bad. I was shaking. I'm still shaking," Dougherty after being cleared.

In another incident at the Western Hotel in 2002, a man was handcuffed when he returned a wallet he found.

Press reports from the time say Las Vegas resident Michael Payne found a wallet with a dated casino comp ticket that suggested the owner was in town and gambling at the Western Hotel on Fremont Street.

When Payne took the wallet to the casino to turn it in, a guard handcuffed him and questioned him.

"I guess it's a rarity for people to do something nice for one another in this town," Payne said at the time. "You try it and look what happens: You end up chained to a wall."

In 2006 a customer at Harrah's Lake Tahoe faced up to 40 years in prison for stabbing casino security guards during a scuffle. After spending 10 months in jail, the customer was acquitted by a jury that said he had the right to defend himself.

"We didn't like what he did, but decided it was justified with the evidence. He didn't have any choice," jury forewoman Margie Leslie said after the trial.

Nersesian said the case was an example of how attempts by casino security to detain customers can get out of hand to the detriment of everyone involved.

"With these tactics, the security guards are placing themselves and others in danger," Nersesian said.

Woolley's Feb. 18 encounter began innocently enough.

Heading home from an evening of poker at Santa Fe Station, the professional poker player made a rare stop at the Cannery. He wanted to check out action in the poker room and take pictures for his Poker Grump blog.

"Cannery was one of the places where I hadn't taken any pictures yet," he said.

As he shot a mural of stylized 1940s imagery high on a casino wall, he said, a security guard told him to stop.

Woolley said he complied, and that when he asked why, the guard said photography wasn't allowed.

When asked what he was shooting, Woolley said he pointed out the mural and the guard seemed satisfied.

Woolley looked around the poker room and was about to leave, he said, when the same guard asked to see the pictures in Woolley's phone camera.

Woolley said that's when the situation escalated: "If I show him the camera and he says, 'I want you to delete that picture,' then it is an increasingly awkward situation."

Woolley walked toward an exit, pursued by the guard who repeatedly told him to stop so the camera could be inspected. Woolley said that when he reached the door, several other guards blocked the exit.

"The only way I could have gotten past would be by force and that wasn't a confrontation I wanted to have," said the thin, bespectacled Woolley, who was soft-spoken, almost retiring, during an interview.

He said he politely but directly refused more requests to hand over the camera and was told he would be taken to the security office. Meanwhile, the guards called the North Las Vegas Police Department.

Woolley said he asked security guards what would happen if he refused to accompany them and they replied he would be handcuffed and forcibly taken. He agreed to go peacefully, but said he told the guards it was only under duress, not willing consent.

Eventually, several North Las Vegas officers arrived, questioned Woolley and spoke with the guards. They took down Woolley's blog address and left the room. When the officers returned, Woolley was allowed to go after security guards took his picture and told him he was banned from returning to the property.

Cannery spokesman Tom Willer said that although there is no rule explicitly prohibiting photography in the casino, guards considered Woolley a security threat.

"(He) appeared to be taking photos of surveillance camera positions," Willer said. "That would be a problem for any casino operator. He did not wish to cooperate with us and show us the photos he was taking, or he had taken. So we asked him to leave the property."

Woolley said that during the ordeal one guard directed a profanity at him and others confused company policy with the law. Such confusion is what Woolley, Taylor and others say contributes to tense situations that could be dangerous for customers and Las Vegas' image.

"There are no rules against it, and there are no rules or regulations that govern it," Randy Sayre, a member of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said of shooting photos in Nevada casinos.

But he added that companies are free to prohibit the practice. They are also authorized to detain customers deemed to be security risks until police arrive.

"If it seems suspicious, clearly I think the property should have the ability to ask questions," Sayre said. "These places have a lot of cash exposed."

However, Sayre said, customers are under no legal obligation to reveal photos upon request.

Sgt. Tim Bedwell, spokesman for the North Las Vegas Police Department, concurred.

Bedwell said North Las Vegas police responded to the Cannery call over Woolley's pictures partly because Woolley was reportedly "very upset and being verbal."

After they assessed the situation they determined Woolley was within his rights to refuse to share pictures.

"It is a reasonable response to say no if someone wants to see your pictures," Bedwell said.

For casinos, upsetting innocent customers on the unlikely chance they're plotting an "Ocean's Eleven"-style heist could be self-defeating.

"Generically, it is probably not the kind of thing you want to detain people for," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Oftentimes people taking pictures are going to be your goodwill ambassadors."

Former casino owner Bill Zender said he welcomed photography throughout the Aladdin, now Planet Hollywood Resort, when he was a partner in the property from 1992 to 1997.

"You think about bomb threats, robberies, an earthquake, fires. These are things you worry about," Zender said. "I like people taking pictures of my casino so they can show their friends. It is free advertising."

There's also the risk that an overzealous security force exposes companies to legal claims.

Earlier this year a professional poker player was awarded $80,000 after a Nevada court ruled he was wrongfully detained by security guards at Tao nightclub in The Venetian.

The court ruled poker player Jim Morrison was wrongly detained after he became upset by repeated, overbearing tip solicitations by club bouncers.

In another case from the late 1980s two California gamblers were awarded $675,000 from the former Binion's Horseshoe on Fremont Street. Press clippings from the time say the men were accused of card counting, and beaten and robbed by security workers. Card counting is legal in Nevada, but casinos can take countermeasures against skilled players.

Eight Binion's employees were indicted and convicted on charges related to the incident. But the convictions were later overturned.

Taylor said that anytime a casino detains an innocent customer, even if the dispute ends amicably, it can corrode the reputation of Las Vegas.

"They'll be released or they'll be exonerated but it is not a fun way to spend your vacation," he said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

 

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