Sweepstakes cafe owner's federal lawsuit aims to curb Pinellas Sheriff's Office raids

A federal judge's ruling on whether the constitutional rights of a Pinellas County sweepstakes cafe owner were violated when deputies shut down her business could affect efforts to press criminal charges against sweepstakes cafe owners for operating gambling establishments.

Megan Crisante filed a federal lawsuit this month after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office raided her Palm Harbor store and three others in July and confiscated 198 computers and $20,000 in cash.

Today Crisante's attorney, Kelly Mathis of Jacksonville, will argue in U.S. District Court in Tampa that her First Amendment rights were violated and there was also an unreasonable search and seizure, prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

Crisante is asking a judge to prevent any additional legal action against her and her cafe.

The Sheriff's Office declined to comment because of the pending litigation. But in its response to Crisante's claims, the Sheriff's Office said that an injunction will remove "the ability for the Sheriff to enforce the gambling laws" and give Crisante immunity "against any gambling violation occurring."

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.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats contends the cafes are gambling houses. He 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 point to a different state statute on game promotions when they argue that their cafes are legal. They say they are merely using sweepstakes games to promote their businesses.

Jerry Theophilopoulos, a Tarpon Springs attorney, represents Charles Bartlett, whose Palm Harbor cafe was also raided and shut down in July. Theophilopoulos said today's hearing will have huge implications on whether criminal charges are pursued against the other cafe owners.

"If the judge rules in favor of (Crisante) in this case, then it's business as usual for all of them," he said. "We have meth labs everywhere, we have cocaine dealers, we have illegal firearms, yet the Sheriff's Office is ... investigating and prosecuting sweepstakes rooms because they are an easy target. They need to get back to fighting real crime."

This isn't the first time Mathis has appealed to a federal judge for a sweepstakes cafe client. Representing Jeffrey Reed, who owned Cyber Zone E-Cafe in Ocala, Mathis contended that authorities there violated Reed's constitutional rights. U.S. Senior District Judge William Terrell Hodges denied Mathis' request to prevent law enforcement officers from pursing criminal charges against Reed.

News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this article. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

Sweepstakes cafe owner's federal lawsuit aims to curb Pinellas Sheriff's Office raids 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 11:38pm]

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