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State, arcades clash in court over video gambling machines

Florida’s controversial new law on video gambling machines began what will undoubtedly be an epic voyage through the judicial system Friday, when attorneys for two Broward County arcades asked a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale to block enforcement of the measure.

U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn promised a ruling next week after a spirited 90 minutes of legal debate in his packed courtroom on whether the law is unconstitutionally vague or violates the rights of the machines’ customers.

The law was passed hurriedly in April after a scandal over political donations by so-called Internet cafes — where computers were set up for gambling — threatened to envelop the Legislature. Lawmakers outlawed “casino-style” games, limited prizes to a value of 75 cents, and made violation a second-degree felony punishable by a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

But the law’s broad provisions have apparently outlawed most of the machines at many gaming centers, ranging from the kiddie games at Chuck E. Cheese’s through young-adult watering holes like Dave & Buster’s and senior arcades where the elderly gather to play simulated video slot machines for 8 cents a pop.

The lawsuit that got its first hearing Friday was brought by owners of two senior arcades, which like hundreds of others around the state closed down after the law went into effect.

Their attorney, Fort Lauderdale constitutional expert Bruce Rogow, focused most of his attack on the new law’s failure to specify exactly what “casino-style games” are. He cited transcripts from hearings on the law in which legislators admitted they were leaving the term undefined and said the law contained “gray areas.”

“There is no definition of ‘casino-style games,’” Rogow argued, adding the term is so broad that an arcade owner could be arrested for owning a machine “because it has lights and a handle.” While the games in his clients’ arcades may look similar to Las Vegas video slot machines, he added, their internal workings are vastly different and allow players to exercise skills instead of relying on pure chance as casino machines do.

But Allen Winsor, defending the law on behalf of the Florida attorney general’s office, said plenty of laws don’t include detailed definitions. As long as they meet the legal standard of being understood by “an average person of ordinary intelligence,” he said, that’s good enough.

“You don’t have to have mathematical precision,” Winsor said. “There are limitations on the English language.”

The two sides also clashed over whether the law violates arcade customers’ freedom of association by, as Rogow contended, effectively closing the senior arcades. “You could make that same argument for a crack house,” retorted Barry Richard, attorney for the Seminole Indian tribe, which has intervened in the case on the state’s side to protect its gambling interests.