Critics question if Michigan's voluntary gambling blacklist works

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Hussein Dakhlallah, a gambler who is on the disassociated persons list at all three Detroit casinos, stands near the front of the Greektown Casino in Detroit on March 19, 2019.

Detroit — Hussein Dakhlallah thought he could fix his gambling problem by signing a piece of paper. 

In 2016, Dakhlallah's wife Terresa grew concerned about her husband's mounting gaming losses. By his own admission, he was losing "$5,000, $6,000 a day" playing slots at Detroit's three casinos, part of the "$3 million to 4 million" in losses he mounted over almost 20 years of gambling.

Dakhlallah eventually agreed with his wife that he needed help. The solution: The 41-year-old Dearborn resident joined the state's Disassociated Persons List, banning himself from Detroit's casinos and, in theory, stopping the financial bleeding. But it didn't.

Dakhlallah is one of more than 4,600 people who have voluntarily decided to go on the gambling blacklist since the MGM, MotorCity and Greektown casinos opened two decades ago.

Customers must sign papers at the Michigan Gaming Control Board saying any subsequent appearance at a Detroit casino makes them guilty of misdemeanor trespass, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. They are banned from the facilities for life.

But critics, including Dakhlallah, argue the list is an ineffective way to prevent problem gambling while it remains a winning proposition for the casinos.

The Detroit casinos aren't able to effectively screen out the banned gamblers, who often return to the gaming halls and continue losing money. If the gamblers do return and win, their winnings are seized by the state and placed in a fund to treat compulsive gamblers.

Since 2005, more than $1 million has been seized, Michigan Gaming Control Board Executive Director Rick Kalm said, including about $540,000 in the past five years. That's in addition to the $1 million the gaming board sends annually to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for problem gambling education and treatment. 

The three Detroit casinos declined to comment on the issue. But Elizabeth Cronan, senior director of gaming policy for the American Gaming Association, said "collectively, the industry commits hundreds of millions of dollars to responsible gaming annually," adding that self-exclusion programs are "an important component" of responsible gambling.

Scope of the problem

While there are 4,604 people on the banned list, it is less than 2 percent of the estimated 300,000 adult problem gamblers in Michigan. 

"That seems like a lot, but in the big picture it really isn’t," Kalm said. "Each casino gets a million guests a year."

At least 20 states with gambling have self-exclusion lists, according to the American Gaming Association. Some states allow people to be removed from self-exclusion lists after a certain period of time has elapsed. In Delaware, for instance, gamblers have the choice of excluding themselves for one year, five years or for life.

In Michigan, lifetime is, by law, the only option.

"Forever is a long time," Kalm said. "When people come in to sign up for (the list), that’s the first thing we tell them, so everybody knows the situation."

Most people don't know they have a gambling problem until it becomes a crisis, experts say. 

They are addicted more to the action of gambling than to the money, said Michael Burke, president of the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling and himself a one-time problem gambler who lost his law license. 

"It's about waiting for the wheel to spin, or waiting for the card to turn," Burke said. "That is what the gambler is looking for, is the action. Money is nothing more than the means to allow us to go through that high."

Burke says he hears regularly from disassociated gamblers who went back to the Detroit casinos anyway, despite the impossibility of winning. The state's Disassociated Persons List doesn't apply to Michigan's 23 Native American gaming halls. 

Due process concerns

It is difficult to keep the self-blacklisted gamblers out of the casinos, Kalm said, estimating that 10 to 12 disassociated gamblers a month are discovered at Detroit's casinos. 

"It’s hard for a casino to know who is (on the list) and who isn’t," Kalm said, "even though we have a picture of them. Even though we notify the casino. With the line of people who come in and out, most of the time we have contact with someone who’s on the (list), it’s after they win the jackpot."

One of those who still returned to the Detroit casinos was Dakhlallah. At one point in 2017 he said he got so frustrated with his addiction and the casinos' inability to keep him out that he called security from outside one of the gaming halls.

"I called and said I’m not supposed to be here, but I can gamble no problem," Dakhlallah told The Detroit News. 

A security guard asked him what he was wearing. About a week later, Dakhlallah said he received a citation in the mail, with an order to appear in court for trespassing as a disassociated gambler. The result was probation.

"He acted like he caught me, but I turned myself in," Dakhlallah said.

Joyce Reasonover, an attorney at the Detroit law firm Misdemeanor and Felony Defenders, has handled the case of Dakhlallah and other disassociated gamblers over the years. She said she would advise clients against joining the disassociation list, but many usually sign it before they find out about her law firm.

Signing the form means a problem gambler is admitting to a strict liability crime while under duress and without an attorney, Reasonover said.

"They’re admitting to a crime if they get caught in a casino." Burke said "How could a lawyer ever let his client do that?"

"A lot of clients have told me they’re going in and out of those casinos but the casinos don’t say anything until they hit a jackpot," Reasonover said. "I’ve heard that a lot."

But Kalm said that's part of the deal.

"The casino is not going to let them off the hook, even though technically they’re not allowed to gamble there, and the casino was supposed to stop them," he said.

How cases are prosecuted

Disassociated persons cases are prosecuted by the Michigan Attorney General's office. Since 2005, 1,066 trespassing cases involving disassociated gamblers have been prosecuted, said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Michigan State Police spokesman Lt. Mike Shaw declined to detail police tactics in identifying disassociated gamblers, saying only: "If you're on the list, don't go in. We will prosecute you."

Since 2011, the state has offered diversion-via-treatment for first-time offenders on the disassociated list. The goal is not only to lessen the burden on the local court system, but try to change the behavior of problem gamblers.

Of the 799 people who have been offered diversion, 725 accepted it initially and 624 completed the program, Kalm said. Of those who completed the program, 85 people or 14 percent have violated again, he said.

For people whose insurance doesn't cover gambling recovery treatment, Kalm said, their treatment is funded by the state's compulsive gambling fund. 

Reasonover argues disassociation would be more effective if there were a cooling-off period between people expressing interest and joining, if an attorney was required to be present on the signee's behalf, and if counseling were offered before people got in legal trouble.

"To put yourself on that list, you’re under duress," Reasonover said. "Everybody who puts themselves on that list, they’re going through something in their lives. They need counseling."

Dakhlallah said that if he could remove himself from the list, he'd do it "yesterday."

But problem gamblers can get help before getting in trouble, said Alia Lucas, gambling disorder program specialist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Help is available around-the-clock through the state's problem gaming hotline at 800-270-7117.

Last year, 317 people were admitted to gambling disorder treatment on 3,639 calls, according to the health department. Those who have no means to pay can get 12 sessions of treatment covered by the state.

Referral numbers used to be almost double that just a few years ago, Lucas said, but have gone down as insurance plans increasingly cover gambling disorder treatment, since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 classified it as an addiction. People whose treatments are covered by insurance are offered a list of clinicians.

Lucas said that disassociated gamblers "start with the most impactive approach" by attempting to bar themselves from going to casinos.

If self-exclusion doesn't work and a gambler is facing trespassing charges, Lucas said it can be the "moment of clarity" that shows the need for treatment. 

"And that's when the services start," Lucas said of first-time offenders referred to the diversion program. "The determining factor is what the individual chooses to do for themselves, as far as preventing the problematic gambling behavior."  

The state has 54 clinicians offering treatment for gambling disorder, most located in Metro Detroit. More than 75 percent of those treated are from Metro Detroit.

Those numbers might soon shift, as the state has another 42 outstate clinicians being trained to treat gambling disorder, Lucas said.

'Everybody knows me'

In February 2017, Terresa Dakhlallah emailed The News to say that joining the Disassociated Persons List hadn't helped her husband.

"The casinos," she wrote, "DO NOT monitor who comes in. The ONLY way the system works is if, God forbid, someone on the list hits a jackpot, the casino doesn't have to pay. Why would they care if there are no consequences for allowing our family members to continue to feed their machines and destroy our lives?"

Standing across the street from Greektown Casino recently, with $2,000 in his pocket, Dakhlallah said: "I could go inside right now and spend money and nobody’s going to say nothing to me. Everybody knows me. No one cares."

The only thing stopping him, he said, is what he's already lost.

In November, during a trip to a tribal casino hours away from Detroit, Dakhlallah was playing the slot machines when Terresa died, at 57, after suffering a medical emergency in their hotel room.

"I can’t gamble here, so I started going there," Dakhlallah said. "And then I paid the price — her life. I paid the price because she died in a casino."

Nearly five months after his wife's death, Dakhlallah is somewhere between believing the list should be more strictly enforced and believing it should be scrapped altogether.

"My advice for anybody: Don’t join that list," Dakhlallah said. "You get screwed. They know you’re going to come back. They know you’re not going to be able to quit."

Then he said: "Just say to the people — we can’t help you. Don’t make a law you can’t enforce."