TAMPA — Lawyers for an Internet sweepstakes cafe owner told a federal judge Friday that Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats violated their client's free speech rights by shutting down her business.
The reasoning? Cafe owners say they are simply trying to tell customers whether their sweepstakes entry won. That they use casino-style computer games to do so is irrelevant.
"Even commercial speech is entitled to First Amendment protection," Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, who represents owner Megan Crisante, argued in U.S. District Court in Tampa.
But a lawyer for Coats dismissed that argument.
"Slot machines are not protected by the First Amendment," said attorney Shannon Kennedy.
The First Amendment argument is another volley fired by the growing Internet sweepstakes cafe industry, a business that critics say is thinly disguised illegal gambling. Cafe owners argue they are using legal sweepstakes — something akin to the McDonald's pull-off tabs on an order of french fries — to promote products such as Internet time or phone cards.
Sweepstakes cafes have become a hot issue for the state Legislature. Bills to ban the simulated gambling devices were filed last session but died in committee. Already, lawmakers are talking about resurrecting those proposals and other, less restrictive, versions.
Coats and Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco have shut down such cafes in their counties while Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee recently warned cafe owners he may go after them.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office raided Crisante's Palm Harbor store, which she bought from state Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, and three other stores in July. Deputies confiscated 198 computers and $20,000 in cash.
At Crisante's store, customers bought 3-cents-a-minute phone cards, which come with a certain number of sweepstakes entries depending on the number of minutes purchased.
Customers could walk out with just a phone card, ask the clerk to reveal their prizes or sit down at one of the store's computers and play games — from Lucky 7s to Lucky Larry Leprechaun — to find out if they won any money.
With a click of the mouse, customers can use their sweepstakes winnings to add more minutes to their phone cards — and pick up more sweepstakes entries.
Crisante filed a federal lawsuit against the Pinellas Sheriff's Office last month saying that her First Amendment, as well as her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, were violated.
Deputies took the phone cards and fax machines. Crisante has not been charged with a crime.
The Sheriff's Office says it needs to finish a forensic audit of the computers before prosecutors decide whether to move forward with charges.
Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.