In 2009 and again this year, Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats mounted aggressive campaigns to shut down Internet sweepstakes cafes in unincorporated Pinellas, saying they were illegal gambling operations.
Now it appears the industry may try a new tack: locating in Pinellas cities. And the police agencies in those jurisdictions haven't yet decided what to do about it.
That Great Place Internet Cafe opened at 2198 NE Coachman Road in Clearwater a few weeks ago.
In St. Petersburg, signs at 833 22nd St. S announce the pending arrival of an Internet sweepstakes cafe.
"There is signage that seems to suggest they are going to do it," said Michael Puetz, a St. Petersburg police spokesman. "Once they are open, we will pay a visit and see what they are doing. Based on our look at the law, if everything is fine, we will move on, but Chief (Chuck) Harmon does not want to prejudge it."
Clearwater wouldn't take a position on the cafes, except to say that the city is examining the law.
"At this point, I'm not at liberty to say anything more than that the matter is currently under review with our agency," said Rob Surette, an assistant city attorney who is the legal adviser for the Police Department.
If the cities choose not to move against the cafes, would the sheriff? Not likely.
"When we learn about an enterprise inside a city limit, we will refer the information to the police agency and offer our assistance if needed," said Marianne Pasha, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. "Without some level of discussion, we would not go into the city limits."
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 reminiscent of slot machines. 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 merely to promote their cafes. They contend the sweepstakes are not a game of chance because there is always a predetermined winner.
Coats' latest effort to rid the county's unincorporated areas of Internet sweepstakes cafes landed in a courtroom before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge John A. Schaefer.
Coats had ordered several cafes in North Pinellas to close within 15 days or be subject to investigation and possible prosecution. Charles P. Bartlett Sr., the owner of Reel Fun of Pinellas LLC in Palm Harbor, asked Schaefer to prevent the sheriff from shutting down his cafe and confiscating his equipment.
But Schaefer said he couldn't prevent the sheriff from enforcing the law against what he considered an illegal gambling house.
Bartlett's attorney, Larry Crow, said Thursday that Reel Fun will no longer pursue the case. The cafe was still operating Thursday and it was not clear what Coats' next move would be.
In St. Petersburg's Midtown, an office building at 833 22nd St. S bears banners that read, "Internet Cafe Sweepstakes." Only a reception desk was visible from the doorway. A man inside who wouldn't identify himself said the business is just going to be an internet cafe. He declined to provide additional information.
A permanent sign on the door identified the office as Advantage Training Systems Inc., an agency that provides computer and job training for the disadvantaged and has operated for several years in Midtown. Gloria D. Campbell is listed as the owner of Advantage Training, but she could not be reached for comment.
John Shaa, the owner of That Great Place Internet Cafe in Clearwater, argues that his business is legal. At his location, a customer pays $5 to use a computer for an hour. There is no swiping of a phone card at the computer, as in some other sweepstakes cafes.
While on the computer, customers can search the Web, renew their driver's license, check e-mail or play sweepstakes games.
Shaa said by the time all the recent publicity about Internet cafes started, he was nearly done building his location in Clearwater.
"We went and got a business license and told them what it was," Shaa said. "We were trying to be honest and open. I've never been arrested and have no record. I'm just trying to do what most Americans do and that's to run a nice, legitimate business that supports my family."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at [email protected] and (727) 445-4174