Monday, January 22, 2018
Politics

Judge denies injunction sought in Internet cafe crackdown

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge Tuesday rejected a request by two Broward County senior arcades to block key parts of a new law that stemmed from a statewide crackdown on Internet cafes.

U.S. District Judge James Cohn issued a 19-page order that denied a preliminary injunction sought by Boardwalk Brothers, Inc., and Play It Again FLA, LLC, which contended that the law was unconstitutional. In part, the arcades contended the law was vague and arbitrary and denied First Amendment rights of seniors who gather at the amusement arcades.

Cohn rejected those arguments and said the state had legitimate reasons for passing the law, which came after raids at Internet cafes that critics long contended were illegal gambling operations. While the law was aimed at Internet cafes, its restrictions also affected games offered at senior arcades — causing many to close.

"(The) state has a significant interest in proscribing the behavior regulated in the statute,'' Cohn wrote. "Plaintiffs have failed to articulate any interest they have which overrides the state's substantial interest in regulating gambling."

The arcades filed the lawsuit in Broward County circuit court in April, about a week after Gov. Rick Scott signed the changes (HB 155) into law. The case was later moved to federal court, with the arcades taking issue with parts of the law that, for example, sought to bar "casino-style games in which the outcome is determined by factors unpredictable by the player or games in which the player may not control the outcome of the game through skill."

"How can a police officer know what a casino-style game is when the Legislature has not, and cannot define it?'' the arcades argued in a motion seeking the preliminary injunction. "How can a police officer know what games or machines involve 'outcomes determined by factors unpredictable by the player.' How can a police officer determine whether a player 'may (or may not) control the outcome of the game through skill.' ''

Attorneys for the arcades also pointed to requirements in the law that said arcade machines would have to be operated by inserting coins and that severely limited the types of prizes that could be won.

But Cohn disputed that the law was unconstitutionally vague or that it would cause "irreparable injury" to the arcades. He also flatly rejected that it would violate First Amendment rights of association for seniors.

"Plaintiffs have failed to articulate how the statute prevents their patrons from associating with one another, given that the statute does not prevent senior citizens from congregating elsewhere if plaintiffs' businesses are closed,'' Cohn wrote. "Moreover, there is no evidence before the court that enforcement of the statute would force plaintiffs out of business and prevent patrons from associating at their establishments. Instead, the statute merely limits the types of games that might be offered. And even if the statute did force plaintiffs out of business, no citizen enjoys a constitutional right to play amusement games."

The Legislature rushed this spring to pass a law to shut down the Internet café industry, after law-enforcement raids across the state and the arrests of 57 people. Authorities alleged that the cafes — dubbed "storefront casinos" by critics — illegally operated computer games that were akin to slot machines.

The crackdown also led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had done consulting work for an organization that was at the center of the investigation.

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