Federal Wire Act

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The Federal Wire Act is a United States federal law that forbids interstate gambling operations. Put into effect on September 13, 1961, the Act prohibits accepting bets across state lines via telephone or telegraph. The law aimed to preserve the integrity of sports matches from the influence of organized crime.


1961: Federal Wire Act

The Federal Wire Act (also known as the Interstate Wire Act) was put into law by Congress on September 13, 1961. It's purpose was to prevent betting across state lines which would allow individual states to enforce their own respective gambling laws. The law targeted those who were taking bets rather than those placing them. The Federal Wire act was part of a series of anti-racketeering laws in the 1960s and aimed to prevent organized crime from manipulating the outcome of games through match fixing.

Subsection (a) of Title 18 of the United States Code section 1084 Transmission of wagering information; penalties reads:

Whoever being engaged in the business of betting or wagering knowingly uses a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest, or for the transmission of a wire communication which entitles the recipient to receive money or credit as a result of bets or wagers, or for information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.[1]

The intention of the Federal Wire Act was not to target the casual sports bettor. Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Congressman Emanuel Celler enforced this notion during a debate regarding the Act in the House of Representatives:

"This bill only gets after the bookmaker, the gambler who makes it his business to take bets or to lay off bets... It does not go after the causal gambler who bets $2 on a race. That type of transaction is not within the purvue of the statute".[2]

The Federal District Court affirmed this by asserting that Congress had no intention of including social bettors in the scope of the Wire Act. This encompassed US bettors who wagered large amounts and operated with a particular "degree of sophistication".

Subsection (b) of the Federal Wire Act pertains to exemptions from the law. The two designated exemptions were in regards to news reporting on sporting events, and the transmission of information related to sports gambling between two states where such betting was legal:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of information for use in news reporting of sporting events or contests, or for the transmission of information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on a sporting event or contest from a State or foreign country where betting on that sporting event or contest is legal into a State or foreign country in which such betting is legal.[1]

Subsection (c) asserts that the Federal Wire Act will not create immunity for criminal prosecution under state laws:

Nothing contained in this section shall create immunity from criminal prosecution under any laws of any State.[1]

Subsection (d) states that any telephone company under FCC jurisdiction must terminate services that are in violation of the Federal Wire Act:

When any common carrier, subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, is notified in writing by a Federal, State, or local law enforcement agency, acting within its jurisdiction, that any facility furnished by it is being used or will be used for the purpose of transmitting or receiving gambling information in interstate or foreign commerce in violation of Federal, State or local law, it shall discontinue or refuse, the leasing, furnishing, or maintaining of such facility, after reasonable notice to the subscriber, but no damages, penalty or forfeiture, civil or criminal, shall be found against any common carrier for any act done in compliance with any notice received from a law enforcement agency. Nothing in this section shall be deemed to prejudice the right of any person affected thereby to secure an appropriate determination, as otherwise provided by law, in a Federal court or in a State or local tribunal or agency, that such facility should not be discontinued or removed, or should be restored.[1]

2011: Department of Justice's Formal Legal Opinion

On September 20, 2011 the United States Department of Justice released a formal legal opinion regarding the 1961 Federal Wire Act. This was initiated when the states of New York and Illinois inquired whether the use of out-of-state payment processors to sell lottery tickets would violate the Act (which prohibited the transmission of gambling information across state lines). The Department of Justice stated that the Federal Wire Act only applied to sports betting, and that if wire communications did not relate to a sports match it would not violate the 1961 law:

Interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a sporting event or contest fall outside the reach of the Wire Act. Because the proposed New York and Illinois lottery proposals do not involve wagering on sporting events or contests, the Wire Act does not prohibit them.[3]

2018: Reversal of Department of Justice's 2011 Legal Opinion

On November 2, 2018 the Department of Justice published a reversal of their 2011 legal opinion which had narrowed the scope of the Wire Act to sports betting. The reversal stated that the 2011 opinion only applied to subsection (b) of the 1961 law regarding the transmission of information which assists in placing bets on sporting events:

This Office concluded in 2011 that the prohibitions of the Wire Act in 18 U.S.C. § 1084(a) are limited to sports gambling. Having been asked to reconsider, we now conclude that the statutory prohibitions are not uniformly limited to gambling on sporting events or contests. Only the second prohibition of the first clause of section 1084(a), which criminalizes transmitting “information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest,” is so limited. The other prohibitions apply to non-sportsrelated betting or wagering that satisfy the other elements of section 1084(a).[4]

The three remaining subsections of the Federal Wire Act were therefore not restricted to sports betting. On January 15, 2019 Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated that the Department of Justice would delay the 2018 reversal by 90 days to allow businesses to make the necessary changes to comply with the law.

2019: New Hampshire Lottery Commission Lawsuit

In response to the Department of Justice's 2018 legal opinion the New Hampshire Lottery Commission filed a lawsuit with the US District Court of New Hampshire. The Commission requested the 2018 reversal to be vacated as it would cost the state around $90 million annually in education funding. On June 3, 2019 Federal Judge Paul Barbadoro ruled in favor of the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, stating that the 1961 Federal Wire Act only pertains to sports betting:

Before me are the Government’s motion to dismiss for lack of standing and the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Based on the text, context, and structure of the Wire Act, I also conclude that the Act is limited to sports gambling. Accordingly, I deny the Government’s motions and grant the plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment.[5]

On August 16, 2019 the Department of Justice filed a Notice of Appeal against Barbadoro's ruling.


The Federal Wire Act exists to prevent illegal gambling businesses from operating in the United States across state lines. The law was put in effect as an anti-racketeering measure to prevent organized crime from manipulating games through match fixing. The Federal Wire Act focuses on those who take bets rather than those who place them. There is no US federal law that prohibits American citizens from placing bets using offshore betting sites.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "18 U.S. Code § 1084.Transmission of wagering information; penalties", Cornell Law School. Retrieved on 2020-02-11
  2. "Federal Wire Act", Gambling Law US. Retrieved on 2020-02-11
  3. "MEMORANDUM OPINION FOR THE ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, CRIMINAL DIVISION", The United States Department of Justice. September 20, 2011. Retrieved on 2020-02-11
  4. "Reconsidering Whether the Wire Act Applies to Non-Sports Gambling", The United States Department of Justice. November 2, 2018. Retrieved on 2020-02-11
  5. "NH wins lawsuit against federeal government over lottery sales", WMUR. June 3, 2019. Retrieved on 2020-02-11