Gambling was illegal in 1920s New York City, but initially, playing the numbers proved difficult to prosecute. The existing law, Statute 974, targeted the older game of policy, which involved betting on the results of a lottery, and not all judges thought that it could be applied to numbers. Moreover, the offense of playing policy was a felony, so defendants had to be indicted by a grand jury and then tried before a jury — and jurors showed little interest in punishing individuals charged with playing numbers. As a result, prosecutors resorted to plea bargaining, agreeing to seek only a $25 fine in return for a guilty plea.
Despite those problems, police arrested those who played the game, watching streets, stores and apartment buildings (for the locations of arrests for numbers in 1925, see the blog post ‘Arrests for Numbers Gambling’ and ‘Numbers on Harlem’s Streets’). They also raided addresses that served as the headquarters of bankers. Significant numbers of police officers also took bribes not to make arrests.
On July 1, 1926, the law changed, and gambling on policy became a lesser offense, a misdemeanor rather than a felony, tried before a Magistrate rather than a jury. New York City’s magistrates agreed on a procedure for handling those convicted of playing numbers: bankers would be sent to the penitentiary; an individual caught with 30 or 40 slips would be judged a collector and sentenced to 60 or 90 days depending on their plea; and an individual caught with only a handful of slips would be regarded as a player and given a suspended sentence of 30 days. Again, money spent bribing police officers and lawyers to fix cases often ensured that those arrested did not receive such punishments.