California Tribe Still Hopeful for Online Bingo and Poker Despite Setback

Just over two years after launching an online bingo platform as a precursor to an affiliated online poker room, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel was recently rebuffed by a federal judge.

On December 12, Judge Anthony J. Battaglia of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ruled that the Iipay Nation’s fledgling online gambling enterprise violated terms of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006. Specifically, Judge Battaglia found that the Desert Rose Bingo website was operating unlawfully by accepting players from outside of the tribe’s reservation boundaries.

The Iipay Nation, a California tribe located in northern San Diego County, launched Desert Rose Bingo in November of 2014. Despite the state’s current prohibition against online gambling, the tribe argued that the provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) permitted them to offer certain casino games for real money via the internet.

The website for the Santa Ysabel Gaming Commission offered the following explanation for Desert Rose Bingo’s legality:

“In offering online gaming through Santa Ysabel Interactive, the Tribe is exerting its sovereign right under the IGRA to regulate and conduct Class II gaming from the tribe’s reservation.”

The Class II gaming classification within the IGRA statutes covers both bingo and poker, and the Iipay Nation made it clear from the outset that its online bingo product was a proving ground for an eventual online poker room. That platform, known as PrivateTable.com, went live along with Desert Rose Bingo, but the poker room was limited to play money tables only.

Within days of the Iipay Nation’s ambitious launch, both the state of California and federal government filed lawsuits. Temporary injunctions were granted, halting all activity at both sites, and the two lawsuits were eventually folded into one, with the case presided over by Judge Battaglia.

In ruling against the tribe – which consists of just 700 members – Judge Battaglia’s primary point of contention was that Desert Rose Bingo could be played by anybody, including Americans living off reservation lands. The Iipay Nation claimed that all actual bingo play occurred on reservation lands, through a random number generator, while players participated via proxy.

In his ruling, Judge Battaglia took particular issue with that locational defense:

“When IGRA and UIGEA are read together, it is evident that the phrase “on Indian lands” was intended to limit gaming to those patrons who participate in the gaming activity while in Indian country.

Were the Court to give IGRA the broad construction Tribal Defendants urge, under no circumstances would the United States be able to enforce UIGEA where some portion of the activity originates from servers located on Indian lands.”

Within the same ruling, however, Judge Battaglia decided against California in the state’s efforts to declare the entire online bingo and poker enterprise to be a violation of tribal gaming compacts. According to him, the state has no authority over the tribe’s handling of either game, as both fall under Class II of IGRA.

Speaking with Online Poker Report, Dave Vialpando, chairman of the Santa Ysabel Tribal Gaming Commission, was cautiously optimistic regarding that secondary ruling:

“The legal issues are the same, whether it’s Class II poker or Class II bingo. With a favorable ruling from the 9th Circuit we will not only be able to launch DRB but Private Table.

We would definitely launch our bingo and dust off our poker and decide whether it’s good business sense to launch. We would not see any legal barriers.”