Austin L. Miller
| Ocala Star-Banner
Marion County Sheriff’s Office officials plan to propose an ordinance to the County Commission that would crack down on internet cafés operating in unincorporated Marion County.
The draft ordinance highlights several reasons the cafes’ computer-style games, which have enjoyed significant popularity in Marion and surrounding counties for several years, need to be curtailed.
In the ordinance, expected to be introduced to the five county commissioners on Tuesday so they can schedule a hearing on the matter, law enforcement officials said the gaming systems can “deceive many Marion County residents, including the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, the uneducated, and the unsuspecting into believing such activities are legal and lawfully permitted.”
The Sheriff’s Office contends that internet cafés negatively affect quality of life and the health and safety of the community. It says the cafes endanger the lives of the public and first responders, attract significant amount of felony criminal activities, and create a public nuisance.
Within the past 18 months to 20 months, Marion County Sheriff’s Office officials said, there have been at least 13 armed robberies at internet cafés. There were two instances where robbers were confronted by armed security personnel. In one case, a patron was shot in the leg.
Labeling the buildings that house the cafés as poorly defended and questionable, sheriff’s officials said it’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed at these establishments.
The Star-Banner has reported on several examples of customers at internet cafés being robbed and of suspects threatening customers. In one instance, the robbers were shot by a customer.
The county’s Unified Drug Enforcement Strike Team, or UDEST, has organized multiple undercover operations at internet cafés. In each instance, the unit has come up with probable cause to believe that gambling laws were violated, according to the draft ordinance.
From March: Marion County closes internet cafes during coronavirus crisis
Officials have sent letters to the internet café owners and operators, warning them of the possibility of civil asset forfeiture and criminal penalties. The cafés would close, only to re-open sometime later, or another would open in its place, according to the ordinance.
The cost of closing each café would be expensive, sheriff’s officials said. They estimate the bill would be roughly $15,000 per café, which includes manpower, investigations and search warrants. For taxpayers, it could be up to three-quarters of a million dollars, and it would take anywhere from 20 percent to 45 percent of the drug unit’s time and resources to do the job.
Two years ago, sheriff’s officials said, the state Legislature reduced the penalty for having gambling rooms from a third-degree felony to a second-degree misdemeanor. Authorities believe that action has led to more cafés opening.
As of Dec. 1, sheriff’s officials estimate there are at least 42 internet cafés operating in Marion.
If adopted by the commission, the ordinance would only affect what is described as devices that simulate gambling activities, and would only apply to unincorporated Marion County. It would not be applied to the cities of Ocala, Belleview or Dunnellon.
The city of Ocala doesn’t have any ordinances against internet cafés. Nevertheless, city police have joined forces with UDEST to curtail cafés from illegally operating within the city limits.
The city of Dunnellon forbids cafés from operating in their area. Although the city of Belleview does not prevent internet cafés, it has restrictions on how and where they can do business. Fox example, they must have armed security wearing uniforms and cannot operate beyond 2 a.m. They cannot be near a school or daycare, and cannot be next to each other.
If commissioners approve the measure, then violators would face fines and could be jailed. Fines and jail time would be assessed for each terminal, according to the ordinance.
According to sheriff’s officials, the ordinance is similar to those in Duval and Nassau counties.
In the past, those who oppose such measures have argued that government officials should tax the businesses instead of shutting them down. They also argue that the cafes are being unduly targeted and that consumers have the right to do what they desire with their cash.
Sheriff’s officials said legally, they can’t tax the business mainly because those type of entities usually don’t keep records. Second, law enforcement officials said they target cafés that generate the most complaints regarding multiple people hanging around the area not doing anything, not to mention frequent robberies and burglaries. And third, there are plenty of other places where customers can legally gamble.
Contact Austin L. Miller at 867-4118, [email protected] or @almillerosb.