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Despite law, cities quiet on kids’ gaming machines

Since Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation outlawing video gambling machines last month, South Florida cops have rolled through their cities like the Untouchables, seizing dozens of machines from mom-and-pop stores and cafes and arresting their owners, while politicians deliver fiery orations about rubbing out a cancer on the community.

But everybody has been curiously quiet about another aspect of the law: big, well-heeled — and lawyered-up — kiddie and adult arcades whose machines were also outlawed by the new legislation. A Miami Herald check of popular chains like Dave & Buster’s, Chuck E. Cheese’s and Game Time found hundreds of machines that don’t comply with the new law.

“I’m not going to go arrest Chuck E. Cheese in front of a bunch of 6-year-olds,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, whose city, on the day the law took effect, confiscated 72 machines from cafes and arcades that cater to the elderly. “If the governor and the Legislature want that, they can come and do it themselves.”

His words drew a bitter reaction from Jennifer Morejon, who was ordered by Hialeah police to close down her video arcade catering to the elderly and dismantle its 100 machines, or face arrest.

“It’s just discrimination,” she said. “How can the machines be bad for my customers, who are adults spending their own money, but not for kids? This is something you expect in a country like Cuba, not the United States.”

The new law was approved by overwhelming margins in both chambers of the Legislature after the news broke that so-called Internet cafes where computers were set up for casino-style gambling, which supposedly were operated by a charity that sent the profits to veterans’ organizations, were actually pocketing nearly all the money.

The scandal forced the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, whose public-relations firm had represented the Internet cafes. And it threatened to spread when it turned out the operators had made campaign donations to a number of legislators.

The law effectively put the Internet cafes out of business, as well as making illegal the so-called maquinitas — “little machines,” coin-operated gambling games scattered through stores and restaurants in South Florida’s blue-collar neighborhoods.

But it also included several provisions that would apply to most popular video arcades. Prizes must be merchandise — not cash or gift certificates — and they can’t be worth more than 75 cents. The games must include at least some element of skill. And they must be coin-operated rather activated by dollar bills or swiping a computerized card. The law also upped the potential penalty for operating illegal games to a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

The sweeping nature of the law, coupled with the harsh penalty, convinced many business owners to get rid of their machines — especially after Miami cops staged a series of photo-op seizures and arrests. Hundreds of arcades for senior citizens around the state shut down after their association’s attorney warned them their businesses ran afoul of the law.

But many arcades that market themselves to children or young adults are simply ignoring the law.

• Literally hundreds of machines in Dave & Buster’s arcades in Hollywood and Sweetwater are activated by computerized smart cards rather than coins. Prizes that can be won on a single game play run from a Geneva wristwatch that retails for about $25 to 10 downloaded songs from iTunes, worth about $10.

• Lake Worth’s Fun Depot offers play on dozens of actual slot machines. Though the slots have been altered to play with and pay off in tokens rather than coins, they were illegal even before Florida’s new law. Many other machines are activated by smart cards rather than coins, and prizes include Beats Solo headphones (retail price: about $200) and Xbox 360 game consoles ($180 and up).

• Most machines at Boomers, a Boca Raton arcade operated by a California-based chain, work on smart cards. Prizes that can be won on a single play include laptop computers, Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation game consoles and iPods.

• Game Time, a Florida arcade chain with a location in South Miami, has smart-card-activated machines offering prizes ranging from popcorn machines to 46-inch televisions that can be won on a single play.

• In Hialeah, Chuck E. Cheese’s — a popular kiddie pizza parlor that includes an arcade — has a wind-tunnel machine in which a nimble-fingered child can snatch up to 2,000 prize tickets: enough for a fiber-optic lamp that changes colors. Similar models go for about $20 in stores. And, like all the other arcades The Miami Herald visited, it has several so-called coin-pushers, machines in which dropping a token may cause hundreds of others to cascade out in a jackpot.

Most of the arcade owners didn’t respond to calls from The Herald. One who did said she thought her business was complying with the law.

“As we understand it, this legislation is not intended to target restaurant and entertainment companies such as Dave & Buster’s, Disney and others who operate games of skill,” said April Spearman, vice president of marketing for Dave & Buster’s. “While we continue to believe this legislation should not impact us, we are working with local law enforcement to understand the new law and ensure we are in full compliance.”

Her belief is shared by some politicians who think the law doesn’t include everybody. “We don’t have any of those places within the Miami city limits, but I thought there was something in the law so it didn’t cover Chuck E. Cheese’s,” said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado. Added Hialeah’s Hernandez: “That part of the law is vague.”

But neither the mayors nor the arcade owners could point to the supposed exceptions in the law. “And how is the law not vague when it comes to senior arcades, but vague when it comes to Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E. Cheese’s?” demanded Michael Wolf, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents the Florida Arcade Association, an organization that includes about 250 video parlors for the elderly.

Wolf filed a suit on behalf of two Broward arcades last month, challenging the constitutionality of the law, which it describes as “arbitrary, irrational and not reasonably related to a legitimate governmental purpose.’”