Legality of Internet cafes is 'a gray area'
Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Two women whiled away their time — and money — in front of glowing computer screens this week in a darkened Internet gaming cafe in Gainesville.
Declining to give their names, they both described themselves as casual players. One would be happy if she never got the chance to play online gambling games again.
"I think they should shut them down so the temptation will be gone," said one woman. "Some people come in here and spend a lot of money — more than they should."
The other hopes to continue clicking away trying to win money.
"Everybody is grown. They should be able to do what they want to do," she said.
The two women represent contrasting positions in a debate that is now occupying the Florida Legislature, a debate created in part by the recent criminal charges against leaders of Allied Veterans of the World.
Allied Veterans have been charged by federal and state authorities alleging an organized $300 million conspiracy of racketeering and money laundering.
Authorities contend the organization falsely claimed to be a charitable veterans organization, but instead deceived the public and government while lining the pockets of its operators.
But even before the Allied case and the proposed state ban, the cafes have spurred concerns that they are, in effect, gambling parlors that make it easy for people to squander money and that attract crime.
Proponents contend they are a means of entertainment and no different than scratch-off sweepstakes at fast-food restaurants.
When the cafes first started springing up several years ago, residents of east Gainesville complained to the City Commission. They contended the cafes depressed property values and lured patrons who could ill afford to spend money there.
Allied had one cafe in Gainesville at 4158 NW 13th St. That cafe is now closed. It also tried to open cafes on Southwest 13th Street and at Newberry and Tower roads but withdrew its applications amid an outcry from neighbors.
The Alachua County Commission enacted a moratorium on the cafes that was lifted late last year. Cafes are now allowed in certain zoning and land-use districts, but none is currently operating in the unincorporated area, said senior planner Missy Daniels.
"There was a lot of back and forth with our attorneys and we couldn't find any data or reason not to allow them in certain areas," Daniels said. "We haven't had any applications since then."
Gainesville has issued 12 business permits to Internet cafes, said spokesman Bob Woods. However, the city could not determine how many are currently open.
Gainesville categorizes Internet gaming facilities under the category of Internet cafes. They are allowed in several zoning districts including warehouse, automotive and general business. More than 40 sites may have been approved by the Planning and Development Services department, Woods said.
Both the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department said few crimes have been reported at the cafes.
The businesses tend to open and close with frequency. At least two have operated consistently in recent months — Treasure Box on Northeast 16th Avenue at 12th Street and the Winner's Circle on North Main Street.
Patrons of the cafes either did not want to speak to The Sun or would not give their names if they did. A reporter was ordered by employees to leave both businesses.
Other Internet cafes scattered around town are open irregularly, with some posting handwritten signs on the door when they are closed.
While the cafes typically advertise a menu of computer services such as faxing and emailing, the main draw are games. Patrons buy Internet time and in return get entry into computerized sweepstakes.
The cafes are generally dark inside with rows of computers at which patrons click on icons to trigger a slot machine-style row of figures to appear on the monitor. If enough of the figures are the same, prizes are won.
Spencer Mann, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, said the cafes are a legal void, adding that law enforcement agencies across the 8th Circuit have consulted with the State Attorney's Office on the legality of the cafes from a gambling standpoint.
"It's really a gray area. Games of chance are considered gambling. Some declare games of skill and argue it is not defined by the gambling statutes. And some argue that you are buying an item and get the chance to win something," Mann said. "It's been frustrating to law enforcement agencies because they believe they have a gambling operation. It's happening from the small towns to the big towns."
Bills outlawing Internet cafes have been filed in the Florida Legislature. So far, they have been passed only out of initial committees.