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Pinellas considering ban on Internet cafés

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County commissioners are considering a ban on so-called Internet or sweepstakes cafés and are looking for input from leaders in the county’s 24 municipalities. County commissioners agreed to send a letter to municipal leaders at their meeting Tuesday, after County Attorney James Bennett asked them to consider three options to deal with the businesses: banning them outright, regulating them or imposing a moratorium, which would allow existing cafés to keep operating but prevent new ones from opening. Bennett favored a moratorium and said it would allow the county to see whether the state Legislature would addresses the issue. But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has been shutting down the cafés in recent years, pushed for a ban. “Please take no action, or pass an ordinance that bans them,” Gualtieri told commissioners Tuesday.
Over the last couple of years, the sheriff’s office has targeted 33 Internet cafés, telling them essentially that what they were doing was illegal. Twenty-four stopped. Five others were successfully prosecuted, and four other cases are still pending. One pending case is that of Megan Crisante, 24, who was arrested last year on one count of maintaining a gambling establishment and 44 counts of possession of a coin-operated device. Hers is a typical case. At her Palm Harbor business, called PMP Café, a patron would buy a phone card allowing him to sit down at one of the café’s computer terminals, according to court documents. By purchasing the card, the patron receives so-called sweepstake entry points, which can be used on the computer to play slot-machine-like games, such as Lucky Larry Leprechaun. Points won can be converted into cash or used to continue playing. Unlike a typical slot machine – where a player has to get three pieces of fruit in a row – Lucky Larry Leprechaun has 15 icons spread five across and three deep on the computer screen, with 20 possible winning combinations, court records say. “They’re slot machines,” Gualtieri told commissioner. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.” The only place to legally play the slots in the Tampa Bay area is at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, which isn’t subject to the same state laws regulating gambling because it’s on tribal land. As of now, there are about 15 Internet cafés remaining in Pinellas County: 12 in Clearwater, one in Largo, one in Tarpon Springs and one in unincorporated Largo, authorities say. Though he has the power to, Gualtieri said he has shied away from trying to shut down the cafés in Clearwater because the city recently passed an Internet café moratorium. “I’m trying to let the cities handle it the way they deem fit,” he said. Commissioner Susan Latvala was concerned that if the commission passed an ordinance, a municipality could “opt out” and choose not to abide by it. Even if a city balks at a ban, though, the county may still be able to enforce one, as it is empowered to do so in matters dealing with consumer services, Bennett noted. In Hillsborough County, a ban on Internet cafés in unincorporated areas was put into effect in late 2011. The Tampa City Council is poised to vote on a moratorium this month. In Pinellas, Crisante’s criminal case is still winding through the judicial system. But others like her have chosen to plead guilty rather than see their cases go to trial. The punishment is typically probation, a pretrial intervention program, costs, fines or some combination of the four. As for the Internet café patrons, they behave as they would at a casino, investigators say, returning again and again, using their winnings to continue playing, and spending long periods of time at the café, with their spouses or family. Many customers are seniors.

One customer at the Palm Harbor café bought $1,338 worth of phone time, won some points but opted to use the points to keep playing. Then that persom purchased an additional $6,795 of phone time, with a total outlay of $8,133 on a single day.

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