A man from Georgia is suing Colorado’s Ameristar Black Hawk Casino Hotel for $3 million. He alleges he was unlawfully detained in response to allegations of card counting at a blackjack table nearly two years ago.
Lookout Mountain’s Joseph Shiraef had a long layover Oct. 19, 2021, at Denver International Airport, roughly an hour from the casino town of Black Hawk. He made his way up the mountain to Ameristar Casino.
He claims he was denied the ability to cash in his chips after playing blackjack for a few hours, then was physically blocked from leaving the casino to catch his flight home. Shiraef’s complaints include:
- Detainment “with no probable cause”
- Violating his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure
- Acts of false imprisonment, negligent training and “refusing to cash in his chips”
Police did not charge Shiraef in the incident. He blames the city for improperly training its police officers.
What was the issue?
Whereas Georgia online casinos remain illegal, along with gambling at retail casinos, Colorado boasts robust online sports betting and retail casino industries.
Shiraef’s complaint says casino personnel asked him to show identification several times throughout the night, with him complying each time. Eventually, a manager requested it to “check something.” Shiraef says he denied that request. The manager then informed him that he could not cash out the $1,800 he held in chips, according to the complaint. With a flight to catch, Shiraef says he opted to head back to Denver and handle the matter at a future date.
He says he was then denied the ability to leave the property. A law enforcement vehicle allegedly blocked his car, and Colorado Gaming Commission agent Joseph Nguyen detained him.
Shiraef claims Nguyen took his identification card and provided it to the casino to put him into a database as an advantage player. That’s a term for those who try to gain an unfair edge in casino games.
Card counting is one example of this. Blackjack players keep track of the number of high and low cards remaining in a deck. They then might increase their wagers when they believe the deck has more high cards remaining, giving them a statistical edge over the house.
Upon returning his ID, Shiraef claims Nguyen told him that he was suspected of committing fraudulent acts of cheating or counting cards.
Is card counting a punishable offense?
According to the complaint, Nguyen eventually released Shiraef and threatened him that any proof of his cheating would result in a warrant for his arrest. Nguyen allegedly said card counting is considered a form of fraudulent activity.
It is not. Colorado state law prohibits marking cards or using technology to count cards only. There is no punishable offense for using mental math to count cards. Casinos can simply ask players to leave and ban them from the casino in the future.
The lawsuit states that “Shiraef did not do anything wrong or illegal to justify being seized, detained, threatened with criminal charges, and having his chip cash out request denied.”
Shiraef’s suit seeks $3 million, half for economic and compensatory damages and half for punitive damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.
Interestingly, Shiraef was down $4,000 at the time of the incident. Given the accusations of card counting, one would assume he had been winning. Equally as interesting, Shiraef never denied counting cards.
Lawsuit finally moves forward
Shiraef’s lawsuit is now proceeding after it was initially filed against five parties on Oct. 7, 2022.
- Ameristar Casino
- Ameristar’s owner, Gaming and Leisure Properties
- The city of Black Hawk
- Patrol Sgt. Stephanie Whitman
- Colorado Division of Gaming agent Joseph Nguyen
An amended version replaced the original suit on Dec. 5, 2022, with the city and Whitman being removed from the complaint on Dec. 19, 2022. The defense said that Shiraef did not provide a strong enough case against them.
As a government official, Whitman also receives qualified immunity, protecting her from liability while carrying out her commitments as an officer.
PlayGeorgia.com will provide updates as the case unfolds.
Photo by Shutterstock / Illustration by PlayGeorgia