Why do reopened Internet cafes get shut down again?

2 Westside Internet cafes shut down Friday in latest raids

By Scott Johnson - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - For the past two years, News4Jax has told viewers stories of Internet cafes around town that have been shut down when the state says they're illegal, then reopened with new games. Each time the owners told News4Jax the new games are legal, and then police seem to go shut them down again.

The latest raids were this past Friday when two west side Internet cafes were shut down.

News4Jax is looking at the legal aspect of this to find out why the owners continually say they're legal and then wind up arrested.

Each time the Internet cafes re-opened, the owners said they had changed the technology of the games and took away the possibility of chance, meaning it's not gambling and it's legal.

But after another round of arrests and with more likely coming around Jacksonville, the state of Florida told News4Jax there's a group of lawyers in Jacksonville giving the Internet cafe operators bad advice and it's costing them jail time.

The latest arrests were in two raids on Normandy and Blanding boulevards Friday. Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford said there are more undercover operations going on right now to shut these places down.

News4Jax asked why the facilities keep getting shut down, then re-opening, then shut down again by police. Both sides said they're on the right side of the law.

"It seems like we continually have attorney or attorneys. That seems to be continuing, to be willing to say this is legal and put their necks out saying this is legal," said the Attorney General's Office.

Local attorney Gene Nichols is familiar with many of these cases, particularly the highest profile case where local attorney Kelly Mathis was convicted for an Internet cafe scam with Allied Veterans.

"I would be shocked to know there's a lawyer out there who's telling someone specifically and putting it in paper that what you are doing is legal," said Nichols. "What I would suspect is lawyers are advising clients, especially because of Kelly Mathis, this may be legal, this may not be legal. Here's what the law says, here's what I think."

Nichols said the problem is the law the legislature passed last year banning Internet cafes and calling them illegal gambling can only be worded so well. Since the manufacturers of these gaming machines can change the software just a bit to get around the wording of the law, these places keep opening.

But law enforcement has zero tolerance for them. So what this means is a jury will have to determine if the operators of these cafes are in fact breaking the law.

"It is absolutely feasible they could win in court because it just depends on what they are now doing. The changes in technology -- does that violate Florida statute? The law that -- does have some loopholes," said Nichols.

Nichols said he suspects during the next legislative session they will tweak the law to close some of these loopholes. The issue will be there is some legal gambling in Florida on Indian reservations and places like the dog track. So the wording of the law is tricky because it can't be too overly broad or it could affect those operations.

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