Court records show in the past five years, 930 customers in Colorado have been cited or arrested under Colorado law.
Their indiscretions range from innocently playing abandoned slot credits left on machines by other customers, cashing in credit vouchers found on the floor, or finding forgotten or dropped chips -- to a series of less innocent crimes such as cheating at roulette or trying to swipe blackjack chips.
By Colorado law, casinos own lost, forgotten or abandoned “property” inside their establishments -- and they don’t mess around with enforcing their rights to retain those credits or money.
Casino security, working with Department of Revenue Gaming Division Enforcement agents, put customers in jail if necessary to collect every penny.
In fact, court records show in Gilpin County since mid-2012, 469 casino customers were arrested and at least were 78 jailed after being accused of misdemeanor casino “fraud.”
Dan has a state professional license to protect and his last name is not being used.
“There was no intent to steal from anybody,” Dan said. “I had no idea.”
Court records in Gilpin County district court show Dan went to Johnny Z's Casino in Central City earlier this year to hit the slots.
A previous customer had left a $2 credit on the machine next to him so he slid over to play it.
The next time he visited and swiped his players card into Johnny Z's system, casino security and state gaming enforcement officers approached him.
"I go upstairs to the third floor into a dirty little room and someone tells me I stole $2 from the casino," Dan said.
Dan said he told security and gaming agents he was glad to pay the $2 back, unaware it was a crime to play abandoned credits. He said they refused and handed him a citation.
The Gilpin County prosecutor and courts gave Dan a criminal record several months later.
He said he felt forced to plead guilty to misdemeanor fraud in order to be offered a deferred sentence.
The plea would allow him to have his criminal record sealed if he successfully negotiated all of the stipulations.
“They said they had it all on camera. I was guilty, I guess. You’re certainly not stealing it from the casino because it wasn’t theirs to begin with,” Dan said.
“There are certainly times where there are ‘laws,’ but they are not morally or ethically correct.”
Court records show Dan had to pay more than $250 in fines, plus pay for his own FBI criminal background and fingerprinting, pay for probation services, perform at least 24 hours of community service and be banned from all casinos for a year.
All that over playing $2 left on the machine next to him.
"You can't walk down a row of slot machines and not see some amount of money on a few slot machines,” Dan said. “Maybe it's only 2 or 3 cents, but where do you draw this line?"
The whole thing feels like a trap to Denver attorney Terry O'Malley.
“What we’re doing is we’re telling people we’re going to surprise you when you get to the casino," O'Malley said. "The rules that applied outside on the street or at your home or work are different."
O’Malley’s law firm is representing at least two casino customers accused of casino fraud.
One client reportedly was charged the “take money not won” crime after finding chips left in an outdoor smoking area. Another client had found a credit ticket on the floor.
“You find a dollar on the sidewalk out front, you're OK. You find a $5 bill, you can celebrate and go have a hamburger. But if you find it inside of a casino? You may be heading to jail. For sure, you're going to get charged with a criminal offense.”
O’Malley said he suspects the motive has less to do with money and more to do with privately run casinos allowing state gaming enforcement agents to “look like they are doing their jobs.”
“That’s a suspicion I have as a defense attorney. They’re sitting there waiting for someone to come up and use that device and they’re going to make an arrest,” O’Malley said.
The idea of casinos wanting unknowing customers to be charged with a crime isn’t without merit.
Several Colorado casinos are listed in court records as complainants: Ameristar, The Lodge, Sasquatch, Wild Card Saloon, The Isle, Lady Luck, Monarch, Golden Gates and Johnny Z’s.
There weren't any notable warning signs telling slot machine players about the criminal risks of using abandoned credits.
A comparable warning would be inside a clothing store dressing room where “shoplifters will be prosecuted” notices are prominently displayed.
What dumbfounds Dan is why Johnny Z's and the host of other major casinos are willing to permanently sour relationships with hundreds of gamblers over a few abandoned dollars.
“I will absolutely never set foot in the place,” Dan said. “I think it's absolutely unfair because you don't know about it and it's unfair because the punishment does not fit the crime.”
Casinos declined to speak on-camera about their part in criminally charging, arresting and jailing customers.
A dozen or so cases involved what appeared to be intentional criminal behavior: Cheating at roulette, wandering around slot machine to slot machine looking for credits, failing to honor a raise in poker, and failing to provide valid identification for IRS purposes after winning a $1,000 jackpot.