TAMPA — In joining a crackdown already under way in neighboring counties, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is warning owners of Internet sweepstakes cafes to stop any illegal gambling or risk prosecution.
In a letter dated Oct. 3, the Sheriff's Office writes to owners that it is "obligated to investigate all illegal activities occurring within our jurisdiction, including illegal gambling activities."
The letter states that "according to our understanding of your operation, you are conducting business activities in violation" of state gambling laws.
The letters come as Hillsborough County commissioners are set to meet next week to take their own steps to regulate the cafes.
Sweepstakes cafes have been allowed to operate freely in Hillsborough, while in Pinellas and Pasco counties, Sheriffs Jim Coats and Chris Nocco have shut down such cafes and arrested owners.
In both Pinellas and Pasco, the sheriffs began their enforcement campaigns against the cafes with similar letters of warning. Coats and Nocco contend that the cafes foster illegal gambling.
Larry McKinnon, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman, said Wednesday that the letters sent this week give owners the opportunity to make sure their businesses operate legally.
"If they are unclear about what the law says, then they should consult an attorney or the State Attorney's Office for clarification," McKinnon said.
The number of Internet sweepstakes cafes has soared in the Tampa Bay area recently.
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.
Last month, Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously to direct staffers to draft an ordinance banning simulated gambling devices. The ban could exempt nonprofit groups.
Commissioners have scheduled a workshop for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss regulating the cafes. If they can agree on language for an ordinance, a public hearing will be held Oct. 19.
Commissioner Sandy Murman, who wants the establishments banned, said there are at least 25 Internet sweepstakes cafes operating in unincorporated Hillsborough.
"The Sheriff's Office is doing the right thing," Murman said of the letters. "They are supposed to stop crime and illegal activity."
The letters are arriving at cafes days before commissioners discuss local regulations, but Murman said the two events are not related.
"I don't think anyone is operating on a timeline because of the ordinance we are proposing," Murman said. "The workshop will allow both sides to present their case."
Nancee Laursen, owner of the Enless II sweepstakes cafe on W Hillsborough Avenue, received one of the letters. She said she is running a legal business.
"I'm going to wait and see what happens," Laursen said. "The fact is, it's not gambling. If they are going to investigate, they should come into my store and let us know they are here so I can explain it to them. It's completely black and white. It's not gambling."
But area law enforcement agencies point to Florida gambling statute 849.16, which states in part that any device is considered 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 if the user, because of "any element of chance," receives anything of value.
Sweepstakes cafe proponents point to a different state statute on game promotions when they argue their cafes are legal. They say they are merely using sweepstakes games to promote their businesses.
A Pinellas cafe owner is challenging Coats' decision to raid and close her Palm Harbor business. A federal court hearing in Tampa is scheduled for Oct. 14.
Staff writers Bill Varian and Elisabeth Parker contributed to this report. Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445.-4174.