Smith County has newfound authority to regulate game rooms after it was included in state legislation enacted this session.
House Bill 3453 gives the Smith County Commissioner's Court, along with several other counties in the state, the authority to restrict the location of games rooms to specified areas in the county; prohibit them within a certain distance of schools, places of worship or neighborhoods; and restrict the number allowed to operate in specified areas of the county.
The county also may require game room owners or operators to obtain a license or permit or renew one on a periodic basis to operate a game room.
It also authorizes a peace officer or county employee to inspect such businesses.
The legislation, which became effective last month, comes on the heels of a game room crackdown by the county and city of Tyler in the past year.
During Wednesday's Tyler City Council meeting, Mayor Martin Heines lauded the city's efforts to curtail activity around game rooms, which he said has resulted in decreased criminal activity.
"We're happy that we have some authority on that," Heines said.
Game rooms as defined by the law are for-profit businesses that contain at least six amusement redemption machines or "electronic, electromechanical, or mechanical contrivances" that provide players the opportunity to win non-cash merchandise, prizes, toys or novelties that do not exceed a certain value.
These rooms can be legal so long as they do not have illegal gambling devices as defined in the state's Penal Code.
However, last December, Tyler police indicated they had seen a dramatic rise in the number of game rooms operating illegally in the city, and officials believed that increase contributed to more crime at those establishments.
For example, during a two-month timespan, one local laundromat that offered such games was robbed four times.
Assistant Tyler Police Chief Billy Yates previously said officers saw some instances where people tried to sell narcotics at some game rooms.
The Tyler Police Department sent out a series of letters to business owners, warning them that gambling, promoting gambling, possession of gambling devices and keeping a gambling place are all illegal in Texas.
In February, Yates said the department concluded there were no more game rooms operating in city limits after the recent crackdown.
The Smith County Sheriff's Office also sent similar letters earlier this year to almost 50 game rooms in unincorporated areas within the county.
In the letter, Sheriff Larry Smith said his office preferred voluntary compliance with the law and removal of machines that violated the law.
However, if business owners and operators did not voluntarily comply, the sheriff's office would take action, he said.
Prior to this legislative session, Smith County was not among the counties authorized by the state to regulate game rooms.