Johnson Act Overview


The Johnson Act, 15 USC §1171 et seq., is a broad federal law that prohibits the shipment of gambling devices. The law does, however, allow shipments of gambling devices to states or localities that have passed legislation that specifically exempts the state or locality from the provisions of the Johnson Act. After its passage, the law was amended by the Gambling Devices Act of 1962, which clarified the kinds of devices covered and the reporting requirements for those dealing in gambling machines.

The analysis below is an overview of this law and its effects on interstate or foreign shipments of covered devices.

Covered Devices – “Gambling Device” Defined

The Johnson Act broadly prohibits the intentional transportation of “any gambling device” into any state or possession of the United States (i.e., Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.). 15 USC §1172(a). A “gambling device,” which includes both assembled machines and parts for machines, is defined as:

(a) The term “gambling device” means –
(1) Any so-called “slot machine” or any other machine or mechanical device an essential part of which is a drum or reel with insignia thereon, and (A) which when operated may deliver, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property, or (B) by the operation of which a person may become entitled to receive, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property; or
(2) Any other machine or mechanical device (including, but not limited to, roulette wheels and similar devices) designed and manufactured primarily for use in connection with gambling, and (A) which when operated may deliver, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property, or (B) by the operation of which a person may become entitled to receive, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property; or
(3) Any subassembly or essential part intended to be used in connection with any such machine or mechanical device, but which is not attached to any such machine or mechanical device as a constituent part.

15 USC §1171(a). As such, the Johnson Act includes slot machines, mechanical gaming devices, and parts for these machines within its definition of “gambling device.”

Pari-mutuel wagering devices, crane games for use at fairs, and certain amusement devices are not included within the definition of “gambling device” and are not covered by the Johnson Act. 15 USC §1178.

Prohibited Conduct

The plain language of the Johnson Act prohibits the transportation of the materials defined as a “gambling device” to a jurisdiction that has not exempted itself from the Johnson Act. 15 USC §1172(a). This is because the statute was drafted, in part, to assist states and local jurisdictions in prohibiting gambling conduct should those jurisdictions choose to limit or prohibit gambling. Case law has noted that the law is designed merely to prohibit the transportation of gambling machines and, therefore, it does not matter whether the parties to the transaction actually intend to use or operate the machines. See U.S. v. Twelve Miami Digger Slot Machines, 213 F.2d 918 (Miss Cir., 1954).

The prohibition applies to shipments made across state lines, as well as between local jurisdictions within a state. Therefore, as an example, although one county within a state may have exempted itself from the Johnson Act, a violation could occur if a shipment is made from that county to a different county within the same state that has not exempted itself from the federal law by state or local legislation.

The statute does, however, allow for transportation across non-exempted jurisdictions if the device stays within the shipping vessel throughout the voyage. 15 USC §1172(c). Furthermore, case law has interpreted the law as not applying to shipments from the United States to an international destination. See U.S. v. Prock, 105 F Supp 163 (DC Tex., 1952); U.S. v. 420 Gambling Devices, 191 F Supp 111 (ED NY, 1961).

The act also makes exceptions for various types of shipments, including those voyages occurring only in international waters, solely within a jurisdiction that allows use of the machines, and various types of shipments to or from Alaska or Hawaii. 15 USC §1175.

Registration and Reporting Requirements for Manufacturers, Distributors, and Others

Each individual or entity that manufactures, distributes, sells, reconditions, or repairs gambling machines that affect interstate commerce must file the proper registration forms and materials with the U.S. Attorney General. 15 USC §1173(a). This registration occurs on an annual basis. Employees of companies that must register do not need to be individually registered. See Information Regarding the Gambling Devices Act of 1962, U.S. Dept. of Justice – Criminal Division, April 2011.

In addition, registered manufacturers must label each gambling machine with the manufacturer’s name, date of manufacture, and serial number. 15 USC §1173(b). Each registered individual or entity must also keep detailed monthly records of each device manufactured or acquired, each device owned or possessed, and each device sold, delivered, or shipped in interstate commerce. These records must contain the manufacturer’s name, the serial number, the date of manufacture, the location of the device, and a description of the device. The names and addresses of the purchaser or seller must also be recorded. 15 USC §1173(c).

Notably, case law has clarified that even those dealing in gambling machines solely in jurisdictions that have passed legislation exempting the jurisdiction from the shipping prohibitions of the Johnson Act must still register with the Attorney General. See U.S. v. Various Gambling Devices, 340 F Supp 1200 (ND Miss, 1972). Furthermore, a person or entity that stores gambling devices but does not operate the devices must still register under the statute. See U.S. v. Various Gambling Devices, 368 F. Supp. 661 (ND Miss., 1973).

It is important to note that the registration and labeling provisions also apply to those dealing in international commerce, even though international transactions are not necessarily banned under the act. Therefore, a company that ships or otherwise transports gambling devices to another country must still register with the Attorney General and properly label the shipments under the Johnson Act. See U.S. v. 420 Gambling Devices, 191 F Supp 111 (ED NY, 1961).

More information, including registration forms, can be found at the U.S. Department of Justice’s website, at www.justice.gov/criminal/oeo/gambling/

Penalties for Noncompliance

Those individuals or entities that violate the Johnson Act, including the registration requirements, may be liable for fines or imprisonment. The act establishes that violators may be fined up to $5,000 and/or imprisoned for up to two years. 15 USC §1176. In addition, gambling devices that are not shipped in accordance with the law may be subject to confiscation or seizure by law enforcement agents. 15 USC §1177.