Florida ban on Internet cafes faces court many lawsuits

The Miami HeraldJuly 8, 2013 

Fourth of July fireworks arrived early for Florida's sweeping new ban on video slot machines.

The law, which sent police raids surging into dozens of video parlors and triggered the closure of hundreds of others by fearful owners, has erupted into a barrage of lawsuits.

The Homestead owner of a so-called Internet cafe, where computers were set up to provide casino-style gambling, has filedsuit in Miami-Dade County challenging the con-stitutionality of the ban on video slots, using legalarguments crafted with the help of famed constitutional law attorney and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.

And owners of seniorvideo arcades, frustrated at what they say is selectiveenforcement of the lawpassed in April, are orchestrating a systematic campaign of lawsuits seekingto have the law applied to upscale arcade chains.

"The law is a lawyer's haven," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Wolf, who represents the senior arcades. "You're going to see a lot more litigation before this is finished."

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who helped muscle the law onto the books, was undismayed by the legal challenges.

"I am proud that we shut down the illegal Internet cafes in Florida," he said. "It's good policy and I'm only disappointed it took this long to do it."

Wolf has filed nearly identical lawsuits in Broward and Palm Beach counties asking to have the upscale video parlors Dave & Buster's and Boomers shut down as "gambling houses" and "public nuisances" until they get rid of games outlawed by the new video-gambling statute.

The plaintiffs in the suits are associates of senior arcade owners -- Robert Forst, who once owned an arcade, and Carlos De Varona, who has done investigative work for the Florida Arcade Association.

Executives at Dave & Buster's and Festival Fun Parks, the company that owns Boomers, did not return phone calls from the Miami Herald.

Wolf's strategy, he said, is to force the well-heeled chains, which so far haven't been targeted by police and prosecutors seeking to enforce the law, to join forces with the senior arcades, which have been closed by the hundreds. He also thinks closing some broadly popular upscale video parlors will gin up public resistance to the law.

"Abraham Lincoln said it best -- the best way to repeal a bad law is to strictly enforce it," he said.

The Miami-Dade lawsuit, brought on behalf of Incredible Investments LLC, owned by Consuelo Zapata, goes for the throat of the new law, alleging the Legislature effectively applied the ban to all computers, everywhere, when it defined illegal slot machines as any "system or network of devices" that may be used in a game of chance.

"They rushed to judgment and they took what they saw as a very specific problem and essentially criminalized everything," said Justin Kaplan of the Miami law firm of Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine, which is representing Zapata.

Legislators passed the law after a federal and state investigation into illegal gambling at Internet cafes affiliated with Allied Veterans of the World, a St. Augustine-based charity organization, led to the arrests of 57 people on racketeering and money-laundering charges. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had done consulting work for the veterans group, quickly resigned under pressure.

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