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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Cops Were Right to Arrest Famed MIT Card-Counter

(CN) - Police properly arrested a former member of the famed MIT Blackjack Team at the Las Vegas casino from which she had been banned, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Click here to read Courthouse News' Entertainment Law Digest.

Though the book "Bringing Down the House," and its film adaptation "21," are both heavily fictionalized, students and ex-students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University spent roughly two decades counting cards to beat casinos at blackjack.

The members have a history of being banned or "trespassed" at casinos nationwide. Desert Palace Inc. had trespassed "advantage gambler" Laurie Tsao from its casinos at least five times, under several different names, before she showed up at Caesar's Palace early one morning in 2008.

Security at Caesar's and supervisor Clint Makeley recognized Tsao as someone who had been trespassed before, and moved to detain and question her.

During the interview, Tsao refused to show identification, used at least one of her aliases, and claimed that she was legally in the casino.

She said Caesar's had sent her several promotional offers for free rooms and events, even after she had been identified as a card-counter. Police arrested and booked Tsao for trespassing and obstructing the duties of a police officer, but the charges were eventually dismissed.

Tsao, who is married to the MIT Blackjack Team manager John Chang, filed a civil rights complaint against Desert Palace and others in 2008, alleging unreasonable search and seizure, battery, false imprisonment and defamation.

The case was removed from a Nevada court to federal court, where U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ruled for the defendants on all of the federal civil rights counts. He found that the officials had probable cause to arrest Tsao, despite her reliance on the promotional offers.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed Tuesday.

Tsao failed to show that the offers constituted an official policy of which casino workers were aware, the Pasadena-based panel unanimously ruled.

"There is no suggestion here that Desert Palace's overall policy is to oust unwanted gamblers even though they have been invited onto the property, that there is any such persistent or widespread practice, or that a policymaking official directed Makeley to arrest her although the policymaker knew that she was at the casino by invitation," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the court.

"Tsao has not alleged that Desert Palace had actual notice of the flaw in its policies," she added. "The question thus becomes whether the risk that security personnel might arrest someone who had been invited to the casino was so 'obvious' that ignoring it amounted to deliberate indifference."

It was not, the panel found.

The panel also ruled that Las Vegas Police Officer Travis Crumrine "had probable cause to believe that Tsao was willfully delaying his investigation in violation of the statute by refusing to provide a name through which her identity as the person previously 'trespassed' could be confirmed or disproved."

While the defendants beat all of Tsao's civil rights claims, the panel vacated and remanded a grant of summary judgment as to the state-level battery, false imprisonment, assault and premises liability claims against Desert Palace.

"The District Court's decision to exercise its discretion to assert jurisdiction over the state law issues assumed its resolution of the probable cause issue in the federal law analysis," the ruling states. "As the District Court's probable cause analysis did not take account of the complexities just noted, as well as the actual nature of the defamation claim, we remand for the District Court to reconsider its assertion of jurisdiction over the state law claims."

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