BRADENTON -- They are called internet cafés, gaming centers and sweepstake cafés, but now law enforcement wants them more clearly defined. Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said, "We have a significant problem here," while addressing the board at a workshop of such businesses Tuesday. His concerns are the 24/7 gambling and the recent robberies that have occurred inside, as well as out in the parking lot. Steube wants the BOCC to adopt an ordinance that can be enforced by the county's code enforcement. Commissioners say 'not so quick.'
Sgt. Jason Powell heads the Internet Unit for the Manatee Sheriff's Office (MSO). Powell reminded the commission of the 2006 operation named "No Dice," where 16 such places were raided, and 33 machines confiscated, along with $35,647 and 500 Visa gift cards. 60 charges were filed for running a gambling house. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanors and the struggle to clearly define just what was going on in these "cafés" was on.
Powell said that Sarasota also tried to curtail what both counties believed to be illegal, but found it difficult to convict those running them because of loopholes and how the businesses were defined, adding, "Now, it is a different ball of wax." The Florida State Legislature was supposed to define and address Internet Cafe's future this past session, but decided to wait. Now it seems that won't happen until the 2014 session at the earliest. Currently, there are 26 cafés in the county.
Sheriff Steube said, "We have received 186 calls for service, robberies and burglaries in the cars. There is not a street without one." Steube said an automatic weapon was used to rob all of the people inside of one cafés.
"We arrested one in the group. We haven't had another, knock on wood," said Steube. "They are violating Florida Gaming law; Statute 849.094, but the state is not interested in prosecution."
Commissioner Carol Whitmore responded, "Then we don't want to be spinning our wheels here." She added outside of these few altercations, "I haven't heard of any complaints. The people that go to these cafés, are 21 years old, and they are only gambling. It's their money."
Internet cafés no longer resemble bingo halls or the intent of Florida Statute 849.094 -- which are things like a McDonald's give-away that require a purchase. These cafes only house a computer that is linked to the internet. Like a lottery ticket, the number that is given to the purchaser, can be checked immediately to see if it is a "winner." When the card is purchased, the winner status has already been determined and they are then able to use their credits on the gaming. Attorneys representing these cafés insist it is not gambling, but some counties disagree.
MSO representative Michelle Hall spoke of an ordinance adopted by Seminole County that has found some success in the state's 11th Judicial Circuit Court, which found the cafés' practices to be "gaming." But the decision was challenged by Allied Veterans of the World Inc., a non-profit that operates at least 39 of the internet cafés in the state of Florida. There too, enforcement is on hold.
Manatee Commissioners felt it would be prudent to wait until the legislature makes a stand on the issue. Manatee's legal team had little to offer and like the commissioners, none of them had ever been in one of the cafés. The workshop left off where it started, without a defined reason to shut them down.