The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has mailed a warning to the operators of four internet sweepstakes cafes: pull the plug on their operations within 15 days or possibly face criminal charges.
"We've determined that they are in violation of the law and we are just giving them 15 days to cease and desist," Sheriff Jim Coats said Tuesday. "If they don't, we are going to go in and do a followup investigation, seize the equipment and charge the people who are responsible."
Among those sent letters was state Rep. Peter Nehr, who owns Fun City Sweepstakes in Palm Harbor. Letters also were sent to the owners of Reel Fun in Palm Harbor, Fun City Sweepstakes in Largo and the Fraternal Order of Eagles cafe in Palm Harbor.
"Our recent investigations involving businesses utilizing coin-operated devices have resulted in criminal charges even when those businesses claim they are operating a game promotion," the letter stated.
The Sheriff's Office executed a similar crackdown on sweepstakes cafes several years ago. The cafes closed and their owners were charged.
Internet sweepstakes cafes are opening throughout Florida. They sell Internet time or phone cards to customers, who sit at desktop computers in the cafes and access casino-style sweepstakes games. On the computer monitors are the spinning images familiar to anyone who has seen slot machines in operation. Game winners get cash.
Coats says the cafes are nothing more than gambling houses and cites 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, including Nehr, argue they are legal. They say they are using access to sweepstakes games to promote their businesses.
Nehr wrote Coats last week, asking him to visit his cafe so he could show him why his business, which sells phone cards to customers, is legal.
Nehr also asked Coats not to close his cafe.
"We've already determined that it's illegal," Coats said. "He asked for a meeting, and I'll meet with him. But I don't see at this point where he is going to change or influence my position."