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Sweeps cafes in Pinellas County vow to fight shutdowns

After the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office shut down three Internet sweepstakes cafes Thursday, Pasco County authorities raided four cafes in that county Friday, calling them a potential breeding ground for crime.

But two of the Pinellas cafe owners vowed Friday to fight any charges leveled against them. One is the daughter of an Orlando woman who was accused of operating a gambling house in Marion County last year, fought the charge before a jury and won.

Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis said he will represent Megan Crisante, the owner of the Palm Harbor Internet Cafe, one of the cafes raided by Pinellas County sheriff's deputies Thursday. Last year, Mathis represented Jeaneen Crisante of Orlando in the Marion County case.

"It's unfortunate that the sheriff has taken this action because no laws were violated," Mathis said. "If they choose to bring charges, I think it's extremely ill advised to do that. The store was in complete compliance with all Florida laws, and if we are forced to go to court to prove that, that's what we will do."

Larry Crow, a Tarpon Springs attorney and former state legislator who represents Charles Bartlett Sr., echoed those sentiments. Bartlett is the owner of Reel Fun in Palm Harbor, which was also shut down Thursday.

"We are going to fight them in criminal court," Crow said. "The law is clear that sweepstakes-type promotions are completely legal in the state of Florida and that's what this is. My client is confident that if he has to go through a trial, he will prevail."

The Pinellas cafes had been warned by letter that they should shut down or face investigation. The cafes that were closed Thursday and their assets seized were Reel Fun, 36157 U.S. 19 N in Palm Harbor; Palm Harbor Internet Cafe, 38541 U.S. 19 N; and Southern Play Arcade, 10623 117th Drive N in unincorporated Largo. Deputies confiscated a total of 198 computers and $20,000 in cash.

No one was arrested, but Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said he worked with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office as he prepared for the raid and he expects the cafe owners to be charged.

"We will present the case to the state attorney for prosecution," Coats said. "I have every reason to believe that they will seek prosecution. … I don't know what (the cafe owners') reason for staying open was, but I made the decision to follow up on our promise."

In Pasco County, deputies confiscated about 200 computers and other materials from the four cafes they raided, saying the items may have been used for gambling.

About 10 a.m. Friday, Pasco deputies showed up with warrants to seize equipment at Bluejay Sweepstakes at 8127 State Road 52 in Hudson; Internet Cafe at 11720 U.S. 19 in Hudson; the Cove at 12124 U.S. 19 in Hudson; and Achievers at 2533 U.S. 19 in Holiday.

No one was arrested, but Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said authorities may bring charges soon. Nocco said the cafes can foster corruption and crime because they are taking in so much money.

"We're trying to cut off the growth (of the cafes) in Pasco County before it gets out of control," said Nocco, who had mailed cease-and-desist letters to Internet cafe owners. The Sheriff's Office contends that the cafes are operating unregulated slot machines through a local computer network.

Customers who visit sweepstakes cafes purchase Internet time that they use to access casino-style sweepstakes games on computers in the cafes. Points won in the games can be redeemed for cash in the cafes.

Coats and Nocco say the cafes are gambling houses and cite 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 point to a different state statute on game promotions. They say the cafes are legal because they are using access to sweepstakes games to promote their businesses.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office conducted a crackdown on sweepstakes cafes several years ago. The cafes closed and their owners accepted plea deals on misdemeanor charges. None of the cases went to trial.

In October 2010, a Marion County jury found Jeaneen Crisante of Orlando not guilty of the third-degree felony of operating a gambling house. Crisante operated 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, a second-degree misdemeanor. The jury deliberated less than an hour. Crisante received all her computer equipment back.

Now with their daughter's cafe shut down, Tim Crisante, Jeaneen's husband, said they will fight as a family for what they believe in.

"I've tried to teach my children … when you love what you believe in, some things are worth fighting for," he said.

"You have to ask yourself, is this worth fighting for? Absolutely, no question, we will fight the charges," he said. "How many times does it need to be proven that we are not doing anything illegal?"

Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this article. Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes and (727) 445-4174.

Sweeps cafes in Pinellas County vow to fight shutdowns 07/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 10:27pm]
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