It was a full house in Hamilton County Sessions Judge Ronald Durby's courtroom Tuesday as about 20 poker players appeared in court on gambling-related charges.
A total of 23 poker players caught playing Texas Hold 'em in an office suite off Brainerd Road went before the judge. On March 21, Chattanooga Police Department officers raided one of the games, which were part of a six-week tournament.
On Tuesday, most of the players appeared in court to learn where the chips would fall in their court cases. Three of the defendants appeared with hired legal counsel; the rest appeared without attorneys.
"If you punish everybody who plays poker, there wouldn't be a whole lot of room left in the jail," said Marty Levitt, a defense attorney representing one of the players.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Denny offered the defendants two options.
"I explained to them I would give them the option of pleading guilty to the gambling charge and receiving a 30-day suspended sentence with a $50 fine and court costs," Denny said. "Or they could apply for a something called a diversion if they had no prior criminal history. They could admit to the judge they were gambling - pay a $50 fine, stay out of trouble for 30 days and pay a $150 expungement fee if the TBI clears them to get that off their records."
Denny said nearly all the players opted for one of the two options, with the split about half and half.
To go to trial with a case like this, Denny said, "You would have to overcome whatever juror bias there would be against strict enforcement of the gambling law. I don't know how difficult that would be."
In this case, most people just want to put the incident behind them.
Michael Thurman, who was one of the players, pleaded guilty with eight others before Durby.
"It would cost more to fight it. I just want it over," he said. "We're all kind of mad about it, but what can you do? Everyone plays poker in town."
Denny said plea deals are typical in cases like this one.
"Most people just want some resolution. They don't want to drag the thing out and have a huge fight in the courts over it," he said. "They just want it to be over and to move on.
"It's kind of an embarrassment. They just want to get it in the past as soon as possible."
But even the judge seemed to have a sense of humor about the situation. When Denny called the players outside the courtroom to offer the plea deal, about half the people in the room exited.
"Is that the gambling bunch?" Durby asked.
"Y'all don't get out there and roll dice," he told them.