The state Supreme Court on Tuesday found that a mandatory $75,000 fine imposed upon a poker dealer convicted of stealing $200 from the Rivers Casino is unconstitutional.
“The fine at issue here, both in an absolute sense and in a comparative sense, is strikingly disproportionate to the manner in which other crimes are punished in Pennsylvania. That the fine is mandatory merely exacerbates the disproportion,” wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the unanimous, 33-page opinion.
Matthew Eisenberg, 29, was charged with misdemeanor theft under the Gaming Act after taking $200 in poker chips from Nov. 26-30, 2010, from the gaming table where he worked at the Rivers.
He pleaded guilty on July 19, 2011, and was sentenced to one year of probation, to pay $200 in restitution and to pay the mandatory $75,000 fine.
At the time of the sentencing, Mr. Eisenberg was a student, was engaged to be married and was expecting a child.
His defense attorney, Michael Santicola, argued at the hearing that the mandatory fine was draconian.
“What we’re doing here, we’re protecting the rights of the casino. We have — the Legislature has placed the casino above everybody else in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Although Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III acknowledged the defendant's argument, he said he knew it would not end in his courtroom. He imposed the mandatory fine without addressing its constitutionality.
Mr. Eisenberg appealed to the state Superior Court, which then transferred the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In his appeal, Mr. Eisenberg told the court that the $75,000 fine violates the state Constitution’s prohibition against excessive fines — that it is “grossly disproportionate to the severity of his offense.” and that it should be deemed excessive.
He further argued that the fine “makes no measurable contribution to the goals of punishment and that it is irrational and unreasonable.”
The state argued that the Legislature’s decision to require a substantial fine in the 2004 Gaming Act is neither irrational nor unreasonable, because the purpose of it is to protect the public by “punishing and deterring criminal behavior that would undermine public confidence in the gaming industry.”
At the time of its enactment, the Gaming Act delineated 13 criminal acts, 12 of which were subject to a $75,000 mandatory minimum fine for a first offense. They included, among others, perjury, failure to pay a licensing fee, unauthorized operation of slot machines and cheating. Theft was added to the law in 2010.
“The original 12 offenses deemed subject to the mandatory fine all involved conduct that went directly to the integrity of the fledgling industry, an industry that naturally raises concerns about associated criminal activity,” the court wrote.
But in Mr. Eisenberg’s case, his was not a theft related to controlling the gaming industry. He just happened to be employed at a casino, Justice Castille wrote.
“In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive,” wrote Justice Castille.
“Simply put, [Mr. Eisenberg], who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino. There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.