Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tells county commissioners why a ban of illegal gambling at internet cafes is preferable to a moratorium or regulation during a meeting March 12.
CLEARWATER – The Pinellas County Commission is polling its 24 municipalities to get their views on a ban to stop gambling in internet cafes.
Commissioners unanimously agreed March 12 that asking the cities where they stand should be the first step before taking action on the matter.
County Attorney Jim Bennett presented three options for dealing with the illegal activity in a staff memo: complete ban, moratorium and regulation. Currently, 18 internet cafes are in business in Clearwater, one is operating in Largo, another is located in Tarpon Springs and one is open in unincorporated Pinellas, which Sheriff Bob Gualtieri plans to shut down in the near future.
Gualtieri says he has no doubt that activities taking place inside internet cafes are illegal. He has shut down 24 such business in unincorporated parts of the county and municipalities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement. He said thus far, the sheriff’s office has had complete support from the state Prosecutors Office.
Gualtieri also has authority to take action against businesses countywide. He said he has chosen to remain hands off in municipalities that handle their own police duties.
“I’ve kept a hands-off in the cities,” he said. “Let them do as they see fit, but we may have to address it (in the future).”
The city of Clearwater is considering a six-month moratorium, preventing the opening any new businesses that offer gambling.
Bennett told commissioners that regulation was increasing around the state on simulated gambling machines and devices, typically found in internet cafes. Florida statute prohibits ownership and possession of slot machines, gambling machines or other games of chance.
State statute describes a slot machine as “any machine that provides a credit based on chance in response to insertion of money or any other thing of value.”
Internet cafes attempt to skirt the law by claiming that the machines only allow access to the internet.
However, that argument doesn’t sway Gualtieri.
“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck. It’s gambling with a slot machine,” he said.
Gualtieri favors a ban and stands strongly opposed to a moratorium or regulation of gambling at internet cafes, saying it would send a mixed message to take such actions on something that is already illegal.
Gualtieri also wants to make sure that any ban would be against the activity, not the facility.
He reminded commissioners of what happened when they approved a moratorium for pain management clinics. The facilities just changed their names, and the commission had to amend its ordinance to regulate high-prescribers of certain controlled pharmaceuticals – not a particular type of clinic.
Bennett said a moratorium would “freeze us in our current position” by stopping any new internet cafes from starting up in the county. He said the action would maintain status quo, giving the state legislature a chance to pass a statewide ban – something most believe is unlikely during the 2013 session.
Options for regulation include licensing, certification or controlling the manner of operation. Bennett said regulation would allow the county to gather more information on the businesses but it also would give the activities a level of legitimacy.
Commissions sided with Gualtieri in favor of a countywide ban, but were concerned that cities would opt out, making it ineffective. Before moving forward, they decided to seek their opinions.
Meanwhile, Bennett said he would look at the possibility of banning gambling in internet café’s by virtue of county government’s charter authority to take action for the public good.
“Then it would be a countywide ban with no opt out,” he said.