About 100 fans of Internet sweepstakes cafes flooded the Pasco County Commission meeting Tuesday to protest recent raids by deputies that have shuttered some of the businesses.
The cafes are clean, safe places to have a little fun, owners and customers told commissioners.
"As you all can see, the vast majority of the people who go to these places are retired," said patron Wayne Brown. "This gives us an opportunity to enjoy ourselves, get out for a few hours."
But some authorities, including Sheriffs Chris Nocco of Pasco County and Jim Coats of Pinellas County, say the cafes are illegal gambling houses using computers that operate like slot machines. Customers purchase Internet time and use cafe computers to play casino-style sweepstakes games. Both sheriffs have moved aggressively to shut down the cafes.
Their opinions of sweepstakes cafes may have some support.
Last week, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi concluded games being operated by a Bay County veterans group were illegal slot machines and violated the state's gambling laws
And last Friday, a Jackson County grand jury issued a report declaring Internet sweepstakes cafes or "electronic casinos" public nuisances and a detriment to that Panhandle county.
The grand jury also didn't think much of the claim by the cafes' lawyers that the businesses are merely selling Internet access and that the sweepstakes are just "game promotions."
"The Grand Jury has considered these claims and finds that they are a sham," the report said.
Fourteenth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Glenn Hess convened the grand jury.
"From what I've learned about (sweepstakes cafes), it's just a license to steal. Even the big winners are deep in the hole by the time they are done," he said.
"There has not been a decision out of a circuit court in the state that says what they are doing is legal. The Legislature is going to have to do something about this.
Bruce Williams, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host based in New Port Richey, owns BlueJay Sweepstakes of Hudson, one of four cafes shut down two weeks ago in a raid by Pasco deputies.
"You guys have a way to solve this," Williams told Pasco commissioners Tuesday. He asked for a six-month hiatus on enforcement against existing sweepstakes businesses. That would give enough time, he said, for the Legislature to meet and pass a law to sanction the cafes.
County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder, however, told commissioners "you passing an ordinance that grandfathers Internet cafes is not going to remove their (need to) comply with state law."
Sweepstakes cafe owners argue that an existing state statute on game promotions gives legitimacy to their businesses. They say the cafes are legal because they are merely using access to sweepstakes games as a promotion for their businesses selling Internet time or phone cards. Points won in the games can be redeemed for cash in the cafes.
But the Jackson County grand jury concluded that there is no real market for businesses that exclusively sell phone cards or Internet minutes. And when Jackson County undercover law enforcement officers went to cafes to observe what was going on, they noticed that no customers were surfing the Internet and that cafe employees were instructing customers how to play the games.
"It is clear," the grand jury report states, "that the purported sale of Internet minutes is merely camouflage for casino-style gambling."
However, James Lewis, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents one of the Jackson County cafe owners, said the grand jury's findings are worthless.
In June, Lewis filed a civil lawsuit against Hess and the Jackson County sheriff. He hopes a circuit court judge will rule that sweepstakes games are not gambling.
Lewis said no Internet cafe owners were given the chance to present the grand jury with "an adverse opinion that this activity is protected by Florida law."
"I think it's wrong for him (Hess) to empanel a grand jury and cook up his own legal opinion," said Lewis, who believes the outcome of the civil case will have statewide ramifications.
No criminal charges have yet been filed against cafe owners in Pinellas and Pasco whose businesses were shut down in the latest raids. Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin said he is waiting on additional investigative materials before deciding if criminal charges will be filed — a process that could take another two weeks.
Internet cafes have been allowed to operate in Hillsborough County. Detective Larry McKinnon, a sheriff's spokesman, said Tuesday that his agency is working with Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner to draft a proposed ordinance that would regulate the businesses.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445- 4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.