Even with ban, Internet cafes likely won't disappear soon

The Gainesville Internet Center on Northwest 13th Street is shown in this March 20, 2013 file photo.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 1:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 3:34 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Don't expect a rash of police raids and empty storefronts after Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Wednesday outlawing simulated slot parlor "Internet cafes" — at least not right away. It could take months — even years — for the ban to unfold, depending on how aggressively the cafe owners fight in court.

An industry that has proliferated over a decade, growing to hundreds of locations in Florida and an estimated $1 billion in revenues, is not likely to disappear overnight.

Internet cafe owners fought a similar ban in North Carolina for two years, ultimately losing in December in the state Supreme Court. Cafe owners continued to operate during the legal battle. Many ignored the ruling and are still open, according to media reports, a result of sporadic enforcement and cafes altering their gaming software to circumvent the law.

Officer Ben Tobias, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said attorneys are reviewing the legislation to determine how to deal with the cafes here.

The city is not expected to rush into closing the businesses immediately, he added.

Florida's ban also is likely to withstand any legal challenges, experts say. But whether the cafes shut down quickly or try to morph their operations and fight on for months or years is still unclear. The details could vary from county to county and city to city.

Much will depend on how aggressive local law enforcement officers are in enforcing the ban, and the legal and technological maneuvers the industry uses in response.

Nova Southeastern law school professor Bob Jarvis, an expert on gambling law in Florida, said the cafes may be able to buy some time with legal maneuvers, but he doesn't expect them to have success.

"At the end of the day, it's very clear gambling is a prerogative of the state, and the state can always ban gambling," Jarvis said.

Cafe operators tried to fight the ban in North Carolina by arguing it violated free speech.

"The North Carolina Supreme Court said that's absurd," Jarvis said. "It has nothing to do with speech at all, it has to do with illegal gambling."

Yet hundreds of cafes continue to operate across North Carolina, according to a recent report in the Raleigh News & Observer. Crackdowns have been sporadic across the state, with no coordinated effort. And gaming companies have evolved their software to stay ahead of the law.

Jarvis said some Florida cafe operators undoubtedly will continue to test their luck and the patience of law enforcement. Some might avoid prosecution for a while, but he expects the industry to eventually fade away.

"Their day has passed," he said.

Staff reporter Cindy Swirko contributed to this report.

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