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Pinellas sheriff warns sweepstakes cafes of investigations

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has warned four Internet sweepstakes cafés that they are operating illegally and that if they remain open they risk being investigated under the state's gambling statute, which could result in criminal charges and the seizure of their computer equipment. "This is just noticing them that these devices they are using are in violation of the law," Coats said this week, "and we are giving them an opportunity to desist and come into compliance with the law." He said investigators will be sent out in two weeks to see whether the cafés are still open. If they are, he said, arrests could be made. One of the cafés is owned by a state representative, who met with the sheriff Wednesday morning.
Thirteen letters from the sheriff were mailed to owners, managers and agents of the businesses on Friday. "If your business is still operating within 15 days of the date of this letter," the letters said, "we may use our discretionary investigative powers to confirm or dispel the notion that you are violating the laws of our state." Coats said that despite the proliferation of such cafés across Florida, – hundreds have opened over the past few years – he believes they're illegal. "The law is clear," Coats said. But it's not all that clear. 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. "Internet cafes that offer a sweepstakes … are not against the law," said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the Coalition of Internet Cafés. She said it is unknown whether the Pinellas cafés were operating lawfully, but each café should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Thousands across the state are in business and are, at least for now, operating within the law. Florida legislators this past session considered two bills that would have cleared up discrepancies in the law – and shut the businesses down – but lawmakers failed to vote on either bill, leaving the statute ambiguous. "No court has ever found that offering an electronic sweepstakes itself violates Florida law," Bascom said. The businesses typically feature rows of computer stations linked to a server that hosts several sweepstakes-type games. The customer pays for a calling card – typically a $20 card buys Internet access for about an hour – giving the customer time to play the games during that time. That method has kept the cafés in business, because some courts have ruled they are not coin-operated machines. Though he has warned the cafés about his plans, Coats said he hasn't received any specific complaints or reports of criminal activity at any of the cafés. One of the four cafés belongs to Florida Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Palm Harbor, who opened Nehr's Fun City Sweepstakes in March. Nehr said he talked to the sheriff Wednesday morning. "We discussed a variety of different things and the difference of opinions we have about the statutes he quoted in the letter," Nehr said. "I asked him to review it with his legal staff and he said he would and that he would get back to me shortly." Nehr said he can't say what he will do if the sheriff stays the course and orders him to shut his café. "I'm not 100 percent sure yet," the representative said. "I'll consider all my options and talk to my legal advisers and then make a decision." Nehr said that when he first looked at investing in such a café, he checked the case law in Florida and found that the courts have mostly with sweepstakes cafés. "I decided that this appears to me to be a legal industry," he said in an interview last week. "When I opened, I didn't expect any kind of problems." Hillsborough County has nearly two dozen such cafés in operation and there is no move to shut them down, said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon. "We don't have anything specific going on," he said, "but we do actively spot check them and monitor them with undercover people who go in to make sure they are complying with what they supposed to be complying with." kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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