JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There may be more Internet cafes in Jacksonville now than there were when the state banned them last April.
Ten months ago, investigators raided the Allied Veterans of the World Internet cafes. State legislators then moved quickly to pass a law making all of the state's Internet cafes illegal.
It's estimated that 50-60 Internet cafes are now open in the River City. The sheriff and others believe they are gambling, but the owners say they're a sweepstakes and are following state law.
Pete's Retreat Cyber Cafe on Normandy Boulevard, not far from Cassat Avenue, was the first to reopen last summer. Now the owner says there are dozens more around town, and he says they follow the new rules.
That's probably why the sheriff has not closed them down. Sheriff John Rutherford said his office is on a wait-and-see approach and a case in South Florida will determine its next step.
It's not just customers taking a chance when they play the Internet cafe games, owners are as well. Rutherford said he's well aware of the growing number of cyber cafes opening their doors in Jacksonville but said right now his hands are tied.
"I can't (shut them down) because I can't make a case, and that is why state attorneys all over the state are not prosecuting," Rutherford said.
The sheriff said police and prosecutors are waiting on the results of the South Florida case that will let them know if the state law passed last year banning the cafes is legal.
"That is going to tell us if the current law is an enforceable state law now," Rutherford said. "So what I am looking at, we are waiting to see if it can be prosecuted."
It's a different court case from the Allied Veterans of the World cafes when 49 people, including local attorney Kelly Mathis and former Fraternal Order of Police President Nelson Cuba, were arrested on racketeering charges. Mathis was found guilty. Cuba's case is still pending.
Many of the owners of the recently opened Internet cafes did not want to comment Thursday. However, Pete Miller of Pete's Retreat, which was one of the first to reopen in the state, continues to talk. He said his café is still open and that is somewhat of surprise, but he believes what his business is doing follows the law.
"The best thing they can do is make this industry legitimate," Miller said. "OK, regulate it, tax it and use the money for schools wherever it's needed. We know the city and state can use all the money they can get. We are a neighborhood form of entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Tax us. Use the money for good."
Rutherford is looking at lawmakers to make some changes, but lawmakers are looking to the sheriff.
"I think it's up to law enforcement now to take a look at it, and if they feel the laws are not clear enough we will have to take a look at it in the upcoming session," state Sen. John Thrasher said.
Rutherford said one suggestion is to pass legislation to just outlaw computer sweepstakes.
"These places are running for the specific purpose of being a sweepstakes," he said. "They are not selling -- well, they say they are selling Internet time. That is clearly a ruse. So we find a way around that by eliminating the computerized sweepstakes machines."
The owners and sheriff are watching closely to see what happens. But as for the Legislature, even though it is looking at gambling, right now Internet cafes are not in its sight.
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