Internet cafes betting on new software to stay open

State officials still say businesses are form of illegal gambling

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Just two months after police shut down Jacksonville's Internet cafes for a second time, the businesses are popping up around the area again.

Duval County was one of five Florida counties where a special task force had to come in and enforce new, anti-gambling laws by raiding businesses.

The operators who have reopened said they think new software in the computers make the businesses legal, but police and state officials still say the Internet cafes are nothing but illegal gambling.

Despite cease and desist orders filed by the state in April telling the cafes to shut down, several now have visible "Open" signs.

Owners who have talked to News4Jax in the past were reluctant to do so now, given the crackdown on their businesses, but they believe they are operating legally.

Attorney Mitch Stone, who represents one of the owners targeted by the state, said he thinks the new crop of Internet cafes need to be careful.

"I'm a little surprised to see that happening," Stone said. "My recommendation is let's get a definitive answer from an appellate court. We'll make a decision, and we'll have to start getting some degree of conformation on who was right."

In April, about 60 cafes were operating in Jacksonville -- the largest number in the state. They started opening last summer, and it took officials about eight months to crack down. Not all of them shut down when they were ordered to, and now more are opening again.

Owners have said the operations are legal because they have changed the software and say it's a sweepstakes and not a game of chance, like gambling. But Stone said state officials don't see it that way.

"They don't agree with that interpretation," Stone said. "Given that, the only advice I can tell people is if you open up, you're playing with fire."

The state Attorney General's Office released this statement: "Our Office of Statewide Prosecution, Sheriff Rutherford's office, the State Attorney's Office and the Illegal Gaming Task Force are working closely together right now, and we are not going to comment on any pending matters."

Stone said customers aren't necessarily in danger of arrest if the cafes are raided again.

"There is no reason why customers would ever be targeted," Stone said. "They would have to target thousands of people who like to go in and play these games. These are basically adult arcades."

For now, the cafes remain open, but no one can say for how long.

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