In My Opinion-Fred Grimm Miami Herald

In My Opinion

Law on strip mall casinos murky in Florida


By Fred Grimm

Florida’s strip mall casinos were already operating within a netherworld of contradictions. Taxed as legitimate businesses in some reaches of the state. Raided as illegal gambling joints in others.

In Miami-Dade County, a case study in Florida’s gambling schizophrenia, storefront casinos seem to be both legal and illegal simultaneously. The burping electronic gambling terminals have been embraced by the mayor of Miami (and by the former mayor of Hialeah) even as local cops seize them as so much contraband.

“There has been a lot of muddying the waters about what is legal and what is illegal,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during his campaign. Taking a stance opposite his opponent, he declared, “I think the machines are all illegal themselves. We cannot allow this.”

Despite such enforcement vagaries, some 1,400 cyber cafes or senior citizen arcades are now operating in Florida, featuring machines or maquinitas that a number of sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and judges consider bastardized slot machines.

Lately, the bizarre legal status of this booming industry has only grown more tenuous. Last week, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Genden rejected the favorite argument by lawyers defending storefront casinos.

“We can go around and around all day long. In my opinion, what’s going on is not an amusement game. It’s not an amusement machine; it’s gambling,” the judge insisted.

The week before, Attorney General Pam Bondi told prosecutors in Bay County that the video terminals in their local storefront casinos “would appear to constitute an illegal slot machine or device.”

Internet cafes run a ploy that allows customers to buy and gamble away credits for Internet minutes. Two weeks ago, a Jackson County Grand Jury issued a report stating, “It is clear that the purported sale of Internet minutes is merely camouflage for casino-style gambling.”

The grand jury, calling the strip mall casinos “public nuisances,” called for “the abatement of these gambling activities as quickly as is practical.”

It’s not just Florida. Cops raided cyber cafes over the past few weeks in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. In Philadelphia, suspects with organized crime associations, including Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, Joseph “Mousie” Massimino, and Louis “Bent Finger Lou” Monacello were charged with strong-arming their way into these lucrative cyber café operations.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine warned that Internet cafes in his state “were skirting the law.” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said, “These cyber cafes are really cyber scams, with no posted odds, minimum odds, or guarantee of payouts for patrons.”

The Florida Legislature has manages to ignore the looming contradictions for years. State Sen. Mike Fasano’s bill to finally regulate strip mall casinos died in committee this past session. Without some kind of legislative clarity, Fasano said Monday, “We’ve made it extremely difficult for law enforcement and state attorneys across the state. One part of the state allows them. Others don’t.”

Except for Miami-Dade County, which does both.

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