TAMPA — A federal magistrate will not stop the Pinellas Sheriff's Office from using antigambling laws to shut down Internet sweepstakes cafes.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun said in a ruling last week that state courts need to hash out questions of whether former Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats violated the constitutional rights of cafe owners before the federal courts intervene.
McCoun's recommendation now goes to a U.S. district judge for a final decision.
Cafe owner Megan Crisante sought relief with the federal court in Tampa after Pinellas deputies raided her Palm Harbor store and three others in July and confiscated 198 computers and $20,000 in cash. She asked that Coats be barred from using state antigambling laws to shut down the cafes.
Sweepstakes cafe customers purchase Internet time that they use to access casino-style games on cafe computers. Points won in the games can be redeemed for cash in the cafes.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office and cafe critics say the setup is thinly disguised illegal gambling. Cafe owners argue they are using legal sweepstakes — something akin to the McDonald's pulloff tabs on an order of french fries — to promote products such as Internet time or phone cards.
Crisante's lawyers had argued that the raid violated her First Amendment rights and that there also was an unreasonable search and seizure, prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.
McCoun said in his recommendation that the state Legislature and state courts need to resolve the question of whether the computer programs constitute slot machines.
But McCoun said he was alarmed by how far deputies went in seizing materials from the business.
By taking all the computers, as well as other equipment unrelated to the sweepstakes, deputies went "well beyond that necessary to investigate the alleged criminal activity."
McCoun said Crisante should first take up that issue with the state court judge who authorized the search before a federal judge gets involved.
Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.