March Madness Office Pools: Illegal, But Tolerated

Prosecutorial discretion is the rule

President Obama's 2016 NCAA bracket picks, courtesy of The White House.

Before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is completed on April 4, an estimated $9.2 billion will be bet on the games, some of that arranged by the 70 million brackets filled out by fans.

But many who joined an office pool just for fun may not be aware that they would be breaking the law if money were involved. Michigan forbids gambling for money, except in ways that are specifically permitted by the state.

The Michigan attorney general’s office didn’t return an email seeking comment. But in the past, it has said going after low-level betting like fantasy sports was not a priority.

Frankenmuth attorney Travis Dafoe the NCAA Tournament is a big part of the month of March. But he said he doesn't think the state pursues low-level gambling such as the bracket pools.

"It’s a little bit like speeding," Dafoe said. "If you go five miles over the speed limit, you might not get pulled over. The time this is likely to get you in trouble is if you are putting $100 or $1,000 down on the bracket. It also might involve a larger gambling operation."

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But there have been instances in which the state has gone after illegal sports betting in the past.

In 2012, the state, with help from the FBI, broke up an illegal sports-betting operation involving a Flat Rock police sergeant and city of Trenton public works employee. Both men pleaded guilty. The police sergeant accepted bets while sitting in his squad car.

Michael LaFaive, the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said most people would agree that prosecuting individuals for low-level betting would be silly.

“I’d wager the same percentage of lawmakers as citizens bet on March Madness games through office and family pools,” LaFaive said. “Police raids on lawmaker basketball pools would result in swift repeal of anti-gambling laws.”

State laws already permit various types of gambling, such as the state lottery, horse racing, charitable fundraising bingo or “millionaire party” games, and low-stakes poker games in certain settings.

“Passing laws that can’t be enforced breeds disrespect for the law,” said Joe Lehman, the president of the Mackinac Center. “People then learn to regard the law as either weak or selectively enforced, neither of which are befitting a strong and free society.”


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