The demand for expert witnesses in U.S. gambling cases is rising as the industry expands, but the lack of knowledge about addiction among judges and attorneys poses a risk for gamblers who end up in court.
“[Defense] lawyers are reluctant to pursue [gambling] as a mitigating factor … [because] they’re unfamiliar with gambling as an addiction. They make believe that they can use other reasons [to defend their clients],” said Stephen Block, the president of the New York Council on Problem Gambling.
“For the most part, the judges are not educated in addiction either,” said Block, who also is an expert witness in gambling cases.
But it was a judge who helped Block become an expert witness in gambling cases in 2003.
Working as a therapist at the gambling treatment center of St. Vincent’s Hospital on Staten Island, Block authored a report on the case of a limousine driver who rifled through mailboxes and stole government checks to pay off gambling debts in Atlantic City.
After reading Block’s report, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of New York City slashed the limousine driver’s sentence in half from 44 months to 22 months.
Weinstein also ruled that Block could be considered as an expert witness on gambling, and the judge met with Block privately after sentencing the limousine driver.
Almost a decade later in 2012, Weinstein wrote a controversial opinion declaring poker is a game of skill and therefore exempt from the federal Illegal Gambling Business Act.
Poker players all over the world celebrated Weinstein’s ruling, and the Poker Players Alliance in Washington, D.C. called it “the most significant poker case that’s ever been considered.”
The celebration proved short-lived, however, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City reversed Weinstein’s opinion on August 6, 2013.
In a 2021 article for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, gaming law professor Bob Jarvis of the Shepard Broad College of Law in Davie, Florida, said much more research needs to be done on expert gambling witnesses.
“For attorneys, the key continues to be to find the right expert for the case. For experts, the key continues to be to only take cases where you have the necessary expertise and then do the work required to produce a solid and defensible opinion,” Jarvis told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in an email on Monday (August 7).
“And of course, both attorneys and experts need to be very conscious at all turns about the ethical rules that govern them,” Jarvis said.
A printer by trade, Block began attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings after 20 years of being addicted to betting at the racetrack and playing poker.
Now 81, Block estimates he has worked as an expert witness on “somewhere between 300 and 400 cases.”
“The clients I have been involved with – they all plead guilty,” he said. “So, it’s not a question of guilt or innocence. It’s a question of just trying to indicate that gambling was the main reason why they committed the crime.”
Although he does not know the exact figure, Block said the number of gambling expert witnesses in the United States is small, and his compensation as an expert witness has ranged from nothing to a modest amount.
In some quarters, the term “responsible gambling” has been criticized for placing the onus primarily on players rather than gambling operators, to prevent addictive behavior.
Industry-led responsible gambling initiatives may be useful in preventing problem gambling, Block said, but they do not help gamblers who already are addicted.
“It’s kind of an oxymoron to use the term ‘responsible gambling’ because - if you accept the fact that it’s a brain disease or illness - once a person starts [addictive gambling], there can be no responsible gambling,” he said.