Operators of arcades striking back with lawsuits
Fourth of July fireworks have 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 filed suit in Miami-Dade challenging the constitutionality of the ban on video slots, using legal arguments crafted with the help of famed constitutional law attorney and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
And owners of senior video arcades, frustrated at what they say is selective enforcement of the law passed in April, are orchestrating a systematic campaign of lawsuits seeking to have the law applied to upscale arcade chains.
“The law is a lawyer’s haven, a lawyer’s orgasm,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Wolf, who represents the senior arcades. “You’re going to see a lot more litigation before this is finished.”
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 Tuesday. “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 both 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 of the 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 directly for the throat of the new law, alleging that 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.
The law was passed “in a frenzy fueled by distorted judgment in the wake of a scandal that included the lieutenant governor’s resignation” and should be thrown out for unlawfully prohibiting commerce, violating guarantees of free speech and due process and being overly broad and unworkably vague, the lawsuit said.
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.
The law not only cracks down on computerized gambling but also bans prizes worth more than 75 cents and arcade machines activated by anything but coins. That apparently outlaws any game that can be played by swiping a computerized card.
Since then, more than 1,000 Internet cafes, more than 200 senior arcades and scores of mom-and-pop stores offering what are known in Miami as maquinitas, little machines, have been forced to close across the state. But authorities have been skittish about challenging popular upscale chains that appeal to either young adults or little children. “I’m not going to go arrest Chuck E. Cheese in front of a bunch of 6-year-olds,” Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez told the Miami Herald last month, a quote that has become something of a battle cry for senior arcade owners.
“That is the very definition of selective enforcement,” said Wolf on Tuesday.
The holiday hordes of children and teenagers visiting Dave & Buster’s in Hollywood — the one targeted by Wolf’s lawsuit — had a different view. Nine-year-old Trace Maus, as he entered, said it was no den of iniquity.
“It’s not illegal for kids to have fun,” he insisted.