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Suit seeks halt to Hillsborough crackdown on Internet sweepstakes cafes

TAMPA — Regulation of Internet sweepstakes cafes in Hillsborough County is heading to court, as it has in other cities and counties in Florida that have tried to curb the businesses.

Four separate sweepstakes businesses in Hillsborough filed suit in federal court Tuesday challenging a ban on computers they use to reveal customers' winnings. That ban was passed by the Hillsborough County Commission earlier this month.

The suit claims the law violates the First Amendment free speech rights of those business owners, as well as equal treatment and due process protections under the 14th Amendment. It further asserts the county is effectively improperly interfering in interstate commerce, since the computers accessed games housed on servers outside the state.

"The county has prohibited a form of entertainment," said Lawrence Walters, with the Walters Law Group in Longwood, which is representing the companies. "It's just so incredibly broad."

His suit seeks an immediate halt to enforcement of the ordinance. It also seeks to clarify whether steps that have been put into place by the businesses since the ordinance was passed now make the cafes legal, even if the law is flawed.

Walters represents companies that have joined another lawsuit in Seminole County challenging a similar ordinance enacted there. It is now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The latest 45-page, 10-count lawsuit names as defendants Hillsborough County and Sheriff David Gee, whose office pushed for the ban and is in charge of enforcing the ordinance passed Dec. 7. Attorneys for both said Tuesday they had not yet read the suit and couldn't comment.

"We kind of expected this," said Debbie Carter, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office.

At the time the law was adopted, the Sheriff's Office said there were about 30 of the cafes in the county, and growing quickly.

The companies bringing the suit are JWS Samuel, which operates Paradise Internet & Sweepstakes at 791 Cortaro Drive in Ruskin; H&W Enterprises, which runs Five Star Internet & Sweepstakes, at 430 W Brandon Blvd. in Brandon; Baystar Multimedia, which runs Happy Mouse Internet Cafe & Sweepstakes at 5537 Sheldon Road in Tampa; and Buckeye Telecom, which runs the Lucky Palms at 3710 W Waters Ave. in Tampa.

With the exception of H&W Enterprises, which is based in South Carolina, all are Florida companies. Each uses the same game software.

According to the suit, the companies sell phone cards and Internet access at competitive rates — 3 cents a minute for long-distance calls. Prior to passage of the ordinance, customers were given a card that allowed them to access in-house computers by swiping them through a device attached to the machines.

Purchase also gave customers sweepstakes entries. Buy more minutes, get more entries. While on the computers, users could visit any website or use software to access sweepstakes that reveal their prizes through games that simulate slot machines.

Important distinctions, according to the suit: No purchase is necessary to get sweepstakes entries; customers don't have to use the machines to find out if they've won and can simply ask an employee; and winnings are predetermined, much the same as pull-tabs on McDonald's french fries — the computer does nothing to change that.

Hillsborough's law specifically outlaws the use of a device, such as a card, to reveal winnings through another device, such as a computer. So the companies that have sued are now giving people access codes. The lawsuit seeks to clarify whether that brings them into compliance.

Either way, the suit claims the county law is prohibiting a form of free speech, like a video game. It claims the companies are conducting a legal sweepstakes under Florida law and the county has enacted an ordinance that flies in the face of that law.

"What the county has tried to do is prohibit the way customers are informed of how much, or if, they've won anything in these games," Walters said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Suit seeks halt to Hillsborough crackdown on Internet sweepstakes cafes 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 9:22pm]
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