An opinion issued this week by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi may give added muscle to authorities in Pinellas and Pasco counties who have shut down Internet sweepstakes cafes, calling them gambling operations.
Bondi concluded the games being operated by a Bay County veterans group were illegal slot machines and violated the state's gambling laws.
Though there are slight differences in the way the Bay County games and the games in Pinellas and Pasco were operated, Bondi's opinion "could offer some support in suggesting that our machines are bad, too," Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Friday.
Internet sweepstakes cafes are operating throughout Florida, including in Tampa Bay counties. Customers of the cafes purchase Internet time, which usually is loaded onto a card that is then swiped at computers in the cafes to access casino-style sweepstakes games. Customers receive their winnings when they leave.
The cafes have ignited debate around the state, with some authorities deciding they are legal and allowing them to operate, and others, like Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats and Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, raiding the cafes and seizing their equipment.
Bay County State Attorney Glenn Hess asked Bondi to rule on the legality of the games after Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8205 began operating them. Hess made no secret of what he thinks.
"The long and short of it is we have these people from South Florida trying to backdoor gambling into the Panhandle," Hess told the Panama City News Herald.
At the VFW post, members and their guests access games on computers. After swiping a card containing purchased points at the computer, the player wagers the points against the game. When a button is pushed, the screen shows spinning drums, much like a mechanical slot machine. The player can stop each spinning drum one at a time. The player tries to line up the drums. Winners are given Visa check cards that can be used anywhere but the VFW.
"Based upon the information provided regarding the electronic machine in question, such a machine would appear to constitute an illegal slot machine or device," Bondi wrote in Tuesday's decision.
Florida Statute 849.16 states that any machine or device is a slot machine if, after inserting money or any object, a person is entitled "to receive any piece of money, credit, allowance or thing of value."
Bondi also stated that because winning is dependent on an element of chance, the Bay County machines violate state gambling laws.
Last week, three Pinellas sweepstakes cafes and four in Pasco were raided by deputies. Nearly 400 computers and $20,000 in cash was seized. McCabe's office is now working to develop criminal charges against the cafe owners.
"We think that with the proliferation of these type of games in the state, law enforcement has to take a proactive stance until the Legislature defines what is illegal and what is not illegal," said Kevin Doll, a Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman. "We at this point think this is unregulated gambling."
Not everyone agrees that sweepstakes cafes are illegal. Last fall, a Marion County jury found Jeaneen Crisante of Orlando not guilty of the third-degree felony of operating a gambling house. She ran a cafe that sold phone cards, which were used to access Internet sweepstakes games and win cash. Crisante also was acquitted of possessing slot machines.
Tarpon Springs attorney Larry Crow represents Reel Fun, a Palm Harbor sweepstakes cafe that was shut down by the Sheriff's Office last week. He said Bondi's ruling will have no effect on what's happening in Pinellas and Pasco.
Crow said that unlike real slot machines, sweepstakes games have a predetermined number of winners, which he contends makes them legal.
"The key is, a slot machine is by chance and that is not what a sweepstakes is," Crow said. "Because a computer is used to reveal the sweepstakes doesn't make a bit of difference, and that's the heart of the legal argument that we are facing in Pinellas County."
Pinellas Sheriff Coats said Bondi's decision "exemplifies the issues we have to deal with in regard to electronic computerized gambling."
"There needs to be some clarification from the Legislature on the use of these machines and the technology," he said. "And the laws need to catch up with this technology."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com and (727) 445-4174.