One of the sweepstakes cafes ordered closed by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has filed an injunction asking a judge to prevent the sheriff from enforcing his order.
Reel Fun of Pinellas LLC "vehemently denies" that the cafe located at 36157 U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor is in violation of any state laws, court documents stated. Charles P. Bartlett Sr. of Tarpon Springs owns Reel Fun.
The request for an injunction, filed Friday, said that Reel Fun should be allowed to operate until the completion of any criminal investigation and prosecution by the Sheriff's Office.
"My clients don't feel like they are violating anything and would like to sit down with the sheriff and dispel any notion that there is any random gambling or game of chance," said Larry Crow, Reel Fun's attorney.
"It's going to have to be looked at by the sheriff," Crow added. "He may say it's not valid, then we are back in court, but I think they should take a look and determine whether or not it meets the sweepstakes criteria (in state law). And it seems to me that it clearly does."
Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer has been assigned the case. Crow is hoping to get a hearing this week.
Sheriff Jim Coats was out of town Tuesday. Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri said the Sheriff's Office will not publicly discuss any pending action until all options can be more fully evaluated.
Coats has taken the stance that internet sweepstakes cafes are gambling houses and has worked to rid Pinellas County of them. On May 13, he mailed a warning to the operators of four internet sweepstakes cafes. He gave them 15 days, or until May 27, to stop operating or possibly face criminal charges.
Coats' letters were sent to Reel Fun, Southern Play of Largo, Fun City of Palm Harbor and the Fraternal Order of Eagles cafe in Palm Harbor.
The owners of Southern Play could not be reached for this article.
State Rep. Peter Nehr, who owns Fun City Sweepstakes in Palm Harbor, has closed his cafe. Monday, a note on the door directed potential customers to a Hillsborough County cafe. Nehr couldn't be reached for this article.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles took a different tack.
"We told the vendor to come get the six machines out of here as soon as we got the letter," said Gene Seabolt, president of Fraternal Order of Eagles No. 4408. "We do all our work for charity and we have a good reputation, so we removed those immediately."
Seabolt said Sheriff's Office investigators visited his cafe before the machines were removed, which prompted the letter.
"I knew there were questions about them, whether they were legal or illegal," Seabolt said. "It's a gray area, but Coats has said they were gambling, and that was good enough for us."
The Sheriff's Office executed a similar crackdown on sweepstakes cafes several years ago. The cafes closed and their owners were charged.
Internet sweepstakes cafes sell Internet time or phone cards to customers, who sit at desktop computers in the cafes and access casino-style sweepstakes games. The spinning images on the computer screens are familiar to anyone who has seen slot machines in operation. Game winners get cash.
Coats cites Florida gambling statute 849.16, which states in part that any device is a slot machine — illegal in Florida except where specifically allowed — if it operates "as a result of the insertion of any piece of money, coin or other object" and the user, because of "any element of chance," receives anything of value.
But sweepstakes cafe proponents say they are legally using access to sweepstakes games to promote their businesses. They, too, point to state statutes to support their position.
"It's a technical matter that's specifically allowed by the statute," Crow said. "We firmly believe we can prevail in a criminal court and my client has indicated that he will not accept a plea of any kind."
Crow said he will offer a computer to the Sheriff's Office so that they can go through the methodology, which proves that it's not gambling.
"I have forensic experts who will testify that it's not a random game of chance," Crow said. "The way I read it, it's pretty black and white, these things are allowed."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.