The end may be near for so-called Internet cafes in Pinellas County. The county commission will seek input from Pinellas's 24 municipalities -- then, it appears inclined to ban businesses allegedly operating as thinly-disguised gambling halls.
"A ban would kind of standardize the process throughout the county," commissioner chairman Ken Welch explained. "There are certain cities that are not enforcing it based on the current state law."
Last week, the Clearwater city commission imposed a moratorium on issuing permits for new Internet cafes, sparing at least a dozen enterprises already up and running.
In general terms, the businesses sell a tangible product, such as Internet time or pre-paid long distance telephone service. The purchase includes access to slot machine-style video games, presumably for no additional charge.
Cash prizes can be won, but in any event, the customer walks away with the original product, such as the calling card.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says there is no mistaking what the cafes contain:
"It's a slot machine...it's the old walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's a duck. These are slot machines, and they function like slot machines, the payouts are there."
Gualtieri said over the past two years, his agency persuaded 24 Internet cafes to voluntarily close. Arrests were made in nine other establishments, with four prosecutions still pending. Five prosecutions ended with plea agreements.
"There has not been a case where the charge has not been upheld," Gualtieri claimed.
So far, the sheriff has honored the local authorities of cities, but favors a county-wide ban. Patrons at two different businesses told FOX 13 News they oppose a ban.
"It's mostly retirees that have fairly good income," Jerry Finley said. "You've got to have some entertainment, got to have something to do every day."
Finley and Vanessa Rophie conceded their pastime might be a form of gambling, but Rophie's opinion: "I think most people that come in here are just here for a small amount of entertainment -- probably ends up being cheaper than going to the movies."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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