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Court: Counties can ban arcades. No interest here

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of March 29, 2012)

Seminole County sheriff's deputies are celebrating because a hard-fought battle to ban internet cafes as gambling halls seems to have been decided in their favor. 

Not only that, but the federal court decision, affirmed by an appellate panel last week, is likely to have repercussions in other Florida counties.

Nevertheless, don't plan on any crackdown by Indian River County on its dozen unregulated gaming cafes any time soon.

“We’re not likely to pass a similar ordinance here,” said county Commissioner Wesley Davis. “I’m all about local control and I’m against illegal gambling, but a ban needs to be a state-wide legislative decision.”

Jim Harpring, general counsel for the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, agrees that Seminole County’s  victory is unlikely to spark interest in a similar ordinance banning the games here. “The legal challenges could get very expensive for us,” he said.  “Better to let legislators deal with it and have state-wide uniformity.” 

Yet, the legislature has not dealt with the issue and a move to ban them fell short this year when the Florida Senate refused to take up the issue. That came just days after the Florida House OK'd a bill to outlaw them.

Meanwhile, over 1,000 internet cafes and arcades offer simulated gambling in Florida and more and more are cropping up, spawning a myriad of problems related to excessive gambling. 

The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling reports over 120 desperate calls in the last year from  internet café and arcade customers or their loved ones from 21 counties – including Indian River County – who say gambling obsessions at the easily accessible internet cafes and arcades have caused them to go deep into debt and frequently become  depressed and suicidal.

“Whether internet cafes are gambling or not, is not something the council will get into. But I can tell you we’re seeing the same troubling symptoms with these customers that we see with compulsive gamblers,” said Brian Kongsvik, director of helpline operations for the compulsive gambling counsel.

Among those symptoms: “Serious financial loss and debt resulting in selling and pawning possessions and illegal acts like writing bad checks and embezzling, “ said Kongsvik.  

The cafes proliferate because the  state legislature refuses to take a stand on their legality or regulate them.

April Krisheman, the Seminole County attorney who led the fight to ban internet cafes there, said that while the recent court decision is a victory for those opposed to their spread, it’s not the best way to stop them.

“We need the help of state legislators, and those senators and representatives who haven't supported a ban need to explain why,”  said Krisheman.

State  Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach,  supported a ban, as did most members of the Florida House. But state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, did not support banning them and did not return repeated phone calls asking why not.

"The Senate needs to come to our position. If not, they're approving gambling," said Mayfield.

At the cafes, clients buy internet time which gives them access to slot machine screens once they  put in a token, pin number or swipe a card.  While a winning screen –  say a bar of  five flying monkeys – is synchronized with a sweepstakes win, internet café owners are careful to point out that the player had nothing to do with the synchronization, which merely signals an unrelated, predetermined  sweepstakes win,  which they insist is not gambling.

But Seminole County disagreed and took owners on, saying it is gambling when a customer pays for a way to gain access to a simulated gambling device, which reveals and delivers a payoff.   It’s plain and simple illegal gambling, county officials argued, and they banned it in an ordinance.

In response, Allied Veterans of the World, owner of dozens of  internet cafes across the state, including  one in Vero Beach on US 1, responded: Not allowing the cafes is a constitutional violation of its right to free speech – that speech being the right to reveal  a sweepstakes winner on the computer screen – and it took Seminole county to federal  court. Furthermore, Allied Vets asked for an injunction – a ban  on the county ban – so they could continue to operate, until the case is decided.

Allied Veterans says it donates a large percentage of the gaming hall profits to veterans’ causes – “over $5,000,000.” But neither their tax returns nor records with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services support that charitable claim.

United District Court Judge John Antoon II last year decided on behalf of Seminole County –  that banning the gaming halls was not a violation of freedom of speech.

In his carefully worded 20-page ruling  dissecting the merits of the case, Anton wrote: Allied Veterans has “not shown that they have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claim.

“The ban (of internet cafes in Seminole County) in no way bans all speech associated with gambling,” he wrote, “it only bans games associated with gambling if those games also provide the possibility of a payoff. “

Allied Veterans appealed the decision and again lost a few days ago although their lawyer, Adam Regar,  said he is still hopeful the internet café owners will win the larger case, which goes to trial in early 2013.  

“We think internet cafes are gaming the system,” said Kirsheman, general counsel for the sheriff  of Seminole County. “But, because they’re bullies with a lot of money, most counties aren’t willing to take them on as we have, and  embark on this battle.”

Indian River County remains among the unwilling  counties. 

Alan Polackwich, Indian River County attorney, said he’d certainly be willing to look at the feasibility of a banning ordinance here, if anyone expressed an interest. “But, to date, no one has, “ he said.

Bob Keating, director of community development  for Indian River County, understands  that the recent  federal court support  in Seminole County  means  “an ordinance by commissioners in this county would be more likely to pass constitutional muster.”

But, he agrees with Indian River County commissioners and officials, that such a ban here is unlikely. “The  bottom line is unless there’s a crisis  –  like the pill mill crisis with people dying –  probably nothing will happen here.”