TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A lawyer for the Coalition of Florida's Internet Cafes said Friday that a recent legal setback won't stop a lawsuit against Seminole County's ban on businesses that offer electronic sweepstakes simulating roulette, slot machines and other forms of gambling.
Adam Regar said the next step is a trial set for January 2013 in a case that has statewide implications.
Hundreds of the storefront businesses are operating across Florida, and several other local governments have similar ordinances.
The state House passed a bill that would have put them out of business, but it died in the Senate without a vote during the regular legislative session that ended March 9. A Senate bill, which also did not pass, would have regulated rather than banned Internet cafes.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta affirmed a federal district judge's decision to let Seminole County enforce its ordinance pending trial.
A three-judge appellate panel said in an unpublished opinion that it didn't have enough information yet to decide whether the ban may violate the free speech rights of the Internet cafes as they are claiming.
“What we do now is move forward and build a record,'' Regar said in a telephone interview from his Jacksonville office.
The lower court denied a preliminary injunction Regar had sought. The judge ruled the ban affects conduct rather than speech.
Sweepstakes themselves are legal and can be used as promotional devices by businesses. For example, customers at fast-food restaurants might he handed scratch-off tickets giving them a chance to win a free burger or order of fries.
Businesses or charitable organizations running sweepstakes cannot charge a fee for participating. The Internet cafes contend they are charging, instead, for time on computers that can be used to view sweepstakes results in a format that mimics casino-style games.
Regar said the appellate court's ruling may have no practical effect because the county so far has not attempted to enforce the ban. He noted it could face damages if the ordinance is struck down.
Another issue in the lawsuit is his clients' contention they are in compliance with the ordinance because it prohibits simulated gambling devices that can be connected with an object such as a swipe card.
The Seminole County businesses, though, don't use swipe cards or other physical means to activate the computers. Regar said customers, instead, log on to what he facetiously called “this evil device'' by typing in a user name and password.
No Florida appellate court has yet ruled on whether electronic sweepstakes violate existing state gambling laws, including a ban on slot machines. Attempts to use those laws against Internet cafes have had mixed results. That includes at least one not guilty verdict, a dismissal for lack of evidence and several guilty pleas to racketeering charges in agreements between prosecutors and defendants, according to a House staff analysis.
The Alabama and Mississippi supreme courts, though, have ruled that Internet café computers used for electronic sweepstakes are illegal slot machines.