Bill bans Internet cafes
Gov. Rick Scott signs bill.
TALLAHASSEE — The storefront gaming centers that dot shopping centers and strip malls across the state are now illegal.
But while state lawmakers were quick to declare these establishments illegal, enforcing it now falls on the shoulders of local law enforcement.
Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a prohibition against the electronic games used at so-called Internet cafes. The law was rushed to his desk following a massive criminal investigation into these organizations and the resignation of his lieutenant governor.
“The Legislature did the right thing to crack down on illegal gaming operators,” the Naples Republican said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
“We look forward to turning our focus back on jobs and education this session.”
The law took effect immediately, meaning any business that allows customers to play games that simulate slot machines — such as so-called Internet cafes and senior amusement arcades — are now operating illegally.
While the law clarifies what is and isn’t allowed under state law, it does not outline an enforcement mechanism. Instead, enforcing the law depends on local law enforcement’s interpretation.
That means law enforcement officials in Southwest Florida may enforce the law differently than their Treasure Coast counterparts.
Karie Partington, a spokeswoman for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on enforcement until the office’s legal team has the opportunity to review the law. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office also declined to comment on enforcement.
Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee-based gaming attorney, said local law enforcement agencies will likely give business owners a window where they can voluntarily shut down before being found in violation.
“I don’t think there will be raids,” Dunbar said.
Karen Kopp, who owns two adult gaming centers in Southwest Florida, wasn’t willing to take that risk. Kopp said she dared not open her arcades Wednesday after receiving a text message informing her the governor was about to sign the bill.
“We haven’t been breaking any laws for 30 years,” she said. “All of the sudden, we’re breaking every law in Florida? C’mon.”
The new law is intended to end a gray area in state statutes used by operators of Internet cafes who claim the games are contests of skill and similar to regulated sweepstakes offered by McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and churches.
Adult arcades have been lumped into the law because officials say they too operate in a gray area, because patrons go to these establishments with the sole purpose to gamble.
The law now requires machines be coin-operated, with prizes to be merchandise valued up to 75 cents. That would prohibit adult arcades like Kopp’s from giving out gift cards.
Lawsuits are expected to try to block the law, and Dunbar said he has been approached by organizations looking for representation. Dunbar has declined, and currently represents clients who support the ban.
Michael Wolf, an attorney for the Florida Arcade Association, said his organization has not ruled out a legal challenge.
“Right now we’re exploring all of the available options,” he said. “There’s no question there’s ambiguity in the legislation.”
Wolf said giving local law enforcement the ability to interpret the law essentially sets the arcade industry back a decade.
“We had to litigate so that judicial interpretations became the law of the land,” he said. “We’re back to square one.”
Dunbar said there are some concerns about whether the law will be implemented since similar laws hadn’t been enforced in the past. Dunbar said while the swift action was appreciated, but said the state needs to have a statewide agency to enforce gaming laws.
Violating the law is a misdemeanor, but Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it could be bumped up to a felony if law enforcement officials decide to pursue a racketeering charge.
Just the possibility of being charged with racketeering is what pushed Kopp to not only close her arcades, but also dismantle her machines.
“They are going to come in, arrest a widowed, single mother who has been in business for seven years, without giving me a cease-and-desist order or anything,” she said.
“They are just going to come in and arrest me. Really? But I can’t take the chance. I can’t face racketeering charges.”
__Staff writer Laura Layden and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.