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Sunday, Sep 24, 2017
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Shuttered sweepstakes cafés may reopen in Hillsborough

After sheriffs in two Tampa Bay counties in the past two months shut down Internet sweepstakes cafés on their turfs, concerns about those businesses relocating in Hillsborough County have attorneys 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 said that relying on 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 the 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 reopen in Hillsborough County. In May, the 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 cafés were out of business. 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. About 100 Internet café supporters showed up at a county commission hearing this week to complain about the sheriff shuttering the businesses. There are 20 such cafés in Hillsborough with their futures in doubt, as commissioners two weeks ago decided to look into controls over the businesses. "Ultimately, whether it will fly," said Brown, the Hillsborough sheriff's attorney, "I don't know."

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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