Florida Internet Cafes: Legal In City, Illegal In County
At least six internet cafes are operating in St. Augustine, Florida. They’re legal in the city but not in St. Johns County where St. Augustine is located. St. Augustine Police Department Assistant Chief Anthony Cuthbert said, “We’re just monitoring the legal landscape to see if anything comes out of that. For now, from what we can, tell they’re operating legally.”
St. Augustine was the base of Allied Veterans of the World, which operated internet cafes throughout Florida. In 2013 law enforcement arrested dozens of AVW owners and associates for money laundering and racketeering. The Florida legislature banned the cafes, causing hundreds to shut down.
St. Augustine City Attorney Isabelle Lopez said internet cafes are reviewed for zoning and building code compliance, like any other business. She said operators understand they could be investigated for hosting illegal gambling and having their machines seized by prosecutors.
“We’ve chosen not to attempt to get into the regulation of gambling, as that is a very complex field right now,” she said. “The state of Florida determines what is or isn’t a gambling establishment. I know a lot of people see internet cafes as gambling dens, and technically if they are comporting with the very peculiar requirements of state statute, they are not deemed gambling. They are sweepstakes, oftentimes set up as legal sweepstakes, regulated by Florida law.”
She added, “The compliance of whether or not you are truly a sweepstakes or a gambling facility has to do with the way the computer programs are set up. And that requires a tremendous amount of resources, so typically those things are handled by the attorney general or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement through a major inter-jurisdictional sweep.”
City Planning and Building Department Director David Birchim said the city doesn’t define internet cafes, so zoning for the difference between them and coffee shops that offer internet access is a problem.
In St. Johns County, no permits or permit renewals have been issued since state law changed following the Allied Veterans of the World investigation, said County spokesman Michael Ryan. The number of internet cafes dropped from 21 to one, Lucky Louie’s, and ″that business is operating without a business permit in St. Johns County,” Ryan said. The county has issued 32 citations, from $118 to $268, against Lucky Louie’s for operating without a business permit. The county also took the business to court, where a judge withheld adjudication and issued a fine, Ryan said.
The county does not get involved in whether a business is involved in gambling. “That’s a state-regulated business. That’s why we’ve been in touch with the state attorney’s office,” Ryan said.