The Marion County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to prohibit the use of simulated gambling devices for commercial purposes.
The county sheriff’s office recommended the action because of what it said was an increase in violent crimes because of simulated gambling devices at internet cafés.
According to the ordinance, simulated gambling devices include any computer-operated games – particularly slot machines – that may deliver the person playing a payoff.
Internet cafés are considered hotspots for crime because of practices like keeping cash on hand and lacking properly trained security, Sgt. Paul Bloom, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office, told WUFT News.
Bloom said four robberies had occurred at the cafés within the last month. The most recent one involved a gunman pointing a firearm at a pregnant clerk and her 9-year-old child, he said.
“The crimes are escalating at internet cafés,” Bloom said. “Eventually, robbery escalates into homicide.”
The ordinance won’t shut down the internet cafés all together. However, any store manager or employee risks being issued a $250 fine per device in operation.
Any employee operating five or more devices could also face arrest, said Tim McCourt, the sheriff’s office’s general counsel, who prepared a draft ordinance for the commission.
“The employee who would be there, if they have 40 devices, could be issued 40 civil citations,” McCourt told the commission Tuesday. “They would also be committing 40 second-degree misdemeanors for which they could go to jail.”
The sheriff’s office district commanders will deliver notices Wednesday to about 40 internet cafés countywide, warning them about the new penalties, McCourt said.
The commission had discussed the ordinance at its last meeting, Jan. 19, but agreed to table the matter for two weeks to consider revisions suggested by Kelly Mathis, an attorney representing a coalition of game room owners. Mathis had argued for more regulation instead of prohibition.
Mathis compared the gambling devices to adult video games, and said removing them would drive internet cafés out of business. He urged the commission to insist that the troubled cafés improve their security systems instead of harming all such stores.
“The reason people go to these game rooms are the video games for adults,” Mathis said. “Saying you’re not closing the business is like telling a pizza restaurant, ‘You can stay in business, but you can’t sell pizzas.’”
It wasn’t the first time Mathis had failed to keep a city or county from impacting internet cafés.
In 2019, Jacksonville enacted similar ordinances prohibiting simulated gambling devices that Mathis challenged as unconstitutional. A federal judge of the Middle District Court of Florida found that the ordinances did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office also complained about a lack of cooperation between law enforcement and the management at internet cafés when a crime happens. McCourt said it’s routine for store owners to deny security footage upon request or simply not report a crime.
“It’s sad to say – that in the face of an armed robbery where someone has a firearm pointed at them and a small child – that law enforcement would be met with anything other than complete cooperation,” he said.
McCourt also argued that no state regulation exists covering the fairness of simulated gambling devices. These machines can deceive many county residents, according to the ordinance. And despite fiscal regulations, he said, many internet cafés don’t comply with income tax laws.
Twenty-three people spoke against the ordinance during the public hearing.
Sherri Matherly of Dunnellon said she’s visited internet cafés for years. She said not only do they uphold COVID-19 regulations, they are also “very considerate of us as older people.”
“They’re a safe place and a good place for us … to fellowship,” Matherly said. “This is a place that we can go and sit down and have good entertainment.”
Since coming to Marion County six years ago, Stacey Castaneda said working at internet cafés has allowed her to care for her five children as a single mother. After getting denied from 32 job applications, she said it’s become her only source of income.
“The jobs that I’ve went to, they look at me because I’m Hispanic,” Castaneda said. “I have a high school diploma. I have a college degree. Why can’t I get a good job?”
Sam Ali, who owns The Grand Arcade in Belleview, came prepared with paperwork to show that he pays business taxes. He said internet cafés that don’t abide by tax laws should be regulated.
“I do my business by the book,” Ali said. “My landlord is happy. My neighbors are happy.”
Only one person from the public spoke in support of the ordinance.
Roger Knechtel said he’s against all types of gambling. After witnessing others squander their hard-earned money on bets, he said there’s too many people that can’t afford to gamble.
“Gambling is a disease. We’ve cured HIV; Hepatitis A, B and C; we’re working on cancer,” Knechtel said. “But gambling and politicians: There’s no disease cure for them.”
County Commissioner Kathy Bryant made a motion to adopt the ordinance, saying the real issue for her was public safety more so than just regulating gambling.
“To think that someone held a gun to a 9-year-old child’s head: That’s unconscionable,” Bryant said. “My fear is that it’s just a matter of time before something serious happens, and then had this commission not taken action, it would fall upon us.”