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Hillsborough debates sweepstakes cafés; other counties ban them

After sheriffs in two Tampa Bay counties over the past two months shut down the Internet sweepstakes cafés on their turfs, concerns about those businesses relocating in Hillsborough have attorneys here researching how to regulate – if not outright ban – the establishments. Chris Brown, a lawyer with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, is gathering information that could result in a future county ordinance. The county commission "asked us to research what was going on in county," Brown said, "and we are looking into it." The commission is scheduled to discuss the matter next month, he said. Brown admitted that relying on the vague state law to enforce restrictions is difficult, even though a push to eliminate Internet sweepstakes cafés a few years ago was successful.
"Three years ago, we were pretty active," he said. "We seized all the machines and put two or three here out of business." There have been no recent raids on the cafés, he said, and any complaints about the businesses aren't coming from those who frequent them. "There's not a lot of citizen outrage," he said. "We've gotten various complaints over past few years," Brown said, "but nothing that's forced us to go out and think about shutting these places down." He said the fear is that with Pinellas and Pasco counties shutting their operations down, those business owners may re-open in Hillsborough County. In May, Pinellas County sheriff rattled the cyber sabers, sending letters to the owners and managers of four cafés telling them they had two weeks to close their doors or risk arrest and losing all their computer equipment to forfeiture. Within two weeks, all four cafes were out of business. Coats' decision came as the proliferation of such cafés bloomed across Florida – hundreds have opened over the past few years – operating within various interpretations, or loopholes, in the law. The legality of the cafés has been challenged before and the courts generally have found that because they operate under a sweepstakes rule, as opposed to games of chance, they are legal. Earlier this month, Pasco County sheriff's deputies shut down four sweepstakes cafés and about 100 Internet café supporters showed up at a county commission hearing this week to complain about the sheriff shuttering the businesses. Deputies raided cafés in Hudson and Holiday and seized 200 computer consoles on which the games were played. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the businesses conduct thousands of dollars of transactions a day and that can only lead to crime and corruption. Quiet on the Internet sweepstakes café front is Polk County, said sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Wood. "Guess we really don't fit in the scheme at all," she said this week. "We haven't had any issues to speak of. I'm not aware of any having opened." Roughly 1,000 of the cafés have sprung up across the state, and have been challenged by law enforcement in Marion and Seminole counties. The Marion county cases ended up in acquittals, while the Seminole case is currently under appeal. Two bills before the Florida Legislature this year got mired in committee hearings and never made it to the floor for a vote. There are 20 such cafés in Hillsborough County with their futures in doubt, as the commissioners two weeks ago decided to look into establish controls over the businesses. "Ultimately whether it will fly," said Brown, the Hillsborough sheriff's attorney, "I don't know." Angel Nicolodi, manager of Calypso Sun, a sweepstakes café in Valrico, said she doesn't expect the county commission to shut down the growing industry, but that there may be regulations and fees imposed. In Jacksonville, she said, such cafés pay an annual fee to operate. "If they want to regulate, that's fine," she said. "We just want to know what's going to be regulated." She said customers and other sweepstakes café owners in Hillsborough County plan to attend the commission meeting to show support for their establishments. That's about all they can do, she said. "From what I've been told," she said, "there's nothing that can be done until they do something."

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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