Maitland is expected to approve an ordinance on Monday, May 23, that prohibits simulated gaming devices from setting up shop in the city.
Seminole County, Oviedo, Ponce Inlet and Winter Garden are among the municipalities that already have bans on devices that are usually found in Internet cafés. Critics call the businesses a front for illegal gambling and “convenience casinos.”
There are more than 1,000 Internet cafes across the state and they are estimated to gross more than $1 billion annually, according to industry and state officials.
“I’m glad we’re getting out in front of protecting the citizens,” Councilman Phil Bonus said May 9 before Council unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance.
Maitland’s ordinance is 95 percent identical to Seminole County’s ordinance, which has already been tested in court, City Attorney Cliff Shepard said. A group called the Allied Veterans challenged Seminole County’s ordinance, saying it violated First Amendment rights. But a judge recently denied the primary injunction.
Allied Veterans operates Internet cafes and donates a percentage of their profit to veterans — a miniscule percentage, Shepard said. “That is all part of their deal … they do it so they can get away with other things that they do. … They’re clearly not the typical veterans organization.”
Police say convenience casinos lead to increased crime because the stores have large amounts of cash on hand. Since nine locations opened in Seminole County, those properties saw a 14 percent crime increase, according to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office.
In April, three men stormed a 24-hour Allied Veterans Café on East Semoran Boulevard in Apopka and exchanged gunfire with a security guard. One man was killed.
“They’re targeted for crime,” Maitland resident Bill Randolph said. “They’re easy pickings. Most of [the cafes] go into strip center-type areas but that doesn’t preclude them from looking at other alternatives.”
The cafes offer computerized “sweepstakes” games to customers who buy Internet time or phone cards. “Points” can be redeemed for cash, and jackpots are as high as $15,000, according to the May 6 New York Times article “Worries About ‘Convenience Casinos’ in Florida.”
The legality of the games is blurry. The state attorney general has left it up to the municipalities to decide if they want to shut down such businesses.
Maitland resident John Butler Book said that the cafes prey on the state’s poorest residents, who sometimes use welfare payments to gamble instead of buying groceries.
“The people who have the least amount of money to gamble with are the victims,” Book said.
The Florida Legislature considered a bill this last session that would have instituted a sweeping ban on Internet cafes but it died. Maitland is working language into its new land development code that will also expressly prohibit Internet cafes.