In a day of many firsts; the first day of a New Year and decade, on a personal note – my first attempt at a website blog, today also marks the first day of California’s new common-sense approach to decriminalizing office and private betting pools. Under the definition of law as it had previously existed, the same co-worker who organized your office March Madness betting pool for the past ten years, or your friends who threw the Super bowl Party last year where to make the event “more interesting” everyone bought $5 halftime and final score “Squares”, could have been punished by a Felony Conviction and $1,000 fine even though your co-worker or friends kept no fee for the service (since everyone knows it’s all for fun anyway).
Many otherwise law-abiding Californians have run office pools for years, knowing that maybe it wasn’t exactly lawful, but probably not realizing they could have faced felony charges, and up to a year in jail. Surely, prevailing logic held for most that even if it wasn’t exactly legal, law enforcement would turn a blind eye to this type of conduct, with all of the other real criminals out there to bust.
Of course, that’s also how Margaret Hamblin, a 76 year old grandmother felt in 2006, that was until she was arrested and charged under the previous language of Penal Code §337 for running a $50 total jackpot football pool as the bartender at the Elks Lodge in Riverside, California. Ms. Hamblin was arrested and booked, for having set up a winner-take-all jackpot for ten of her customer’s $5 bets. Ms. Hamblin kept no profit from the football pool. “The old law was so archaic it was ridiculous. You could get in trouble if someone puts a quarter in a pool,” said Hamblin, who was fined $130 and had her fingerprints and mug shot taken after she was cited for running a betting pool. 
In response to the draconian punishment that existed under the previous version of the law, Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, first introduced a proposal to change the penalties of PC §337 in 2008, after he found out about Ms. Hamblin’s ordeal. California AB 58, which decriminalized office pools by reclassifying the offense as an infraction rather than felony or misdemeanor, was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in August of 2009 and takes effect today (January 1, 2010). So rest a little easier Ms. Hamblin and Rick Neuheisel(UCLA’s new football coach); so long as the amounts involved do not exceed $2,500 and the organizer keeps no profit, if you get busted for running an office March Madness pool this year, you won’t be committing a felony or putting yourself in jeopardy of a consequence worse than a speeding ticket.
Marc Kohnen is a San Diego criminal defense and DUI lawyer in private practice. Please call him at (619) 398.2500 if you have been arrested or contacted by police investigating a criminal offense.
 A winner-take-all game of chance, similar to bingo but decided by the outcome of a score in a given game or sporting event, paying the jackpot to the winner whose numbered squares (drawn from a hat at random) aligned to coincide with the game’s final score.
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