Both sides plot next moves in battle over sweepstakes cafes

Both sides plot next moves in battle over sweepstakes cafes »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Days after an appeals court ruled those so-called sweepstakes cafes amount to illegal gambling, local officials and café owners are deciding what their next steps will be. The ruling came out Friday. On Monday law enforcement said they plan to meet with the District Attorney's office, and the café owners' association will also huddle later this week.
The Kern County District Attorney's office had argued the operations are illegal, and the decision by the Fifth Appellate District backed that up. The D.A'.s office said the ruling means the cafes can be ordered to stop all gaming activities.
"We're coordinating our efforts with the City Attorney's office and the Kern County District Attorney's office," Bakersfield Police Sgt. Joe Grubbs told Eyewitness News on Monday. "We're kind of seeking some guidance."
Monday, Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said his department plans to meet with the D.A.'s office on Tuesday.
But, Internet café Association member Phillip Walker told Eyewitness News his group will also have a meeting.
"We'll go back to the table and figure out what the next step is," Walker said. He said after the ruling, it appears some of the local cafes closed and other stayed open. "We need to let the community know what's going on," he said. "And, not get stressed about it." He says 12 to 15 cafes are now open locally.
Walker runs the Oz Internet Sweepstakes café on F Street, and was court-ordered in 2012 to stop running the games when the D.A.'s office got a preliminary injunction ahead of a civil trial. Walker said since then, he has continued with other parts of the business -- like fax services and selling minutes of internet use.
But, the D.A. has insisted the internet games are illegal gambling, and they often draw other crimes. And Bakersfield Police say they've gotten a "significant number" of complaints about the cafes.
"I understand there's a lot of people in the community that are just wanting them closed immediately, go chain up the doors," Sgt. Grubbs said. "However, there are some legal processes that are going to need to be met, and reviewed and gone through before we can do that."
Eyewitness News has also investigated a number of complaints about the sweepstakes cafes. Neighbors and nearby businesses reported crimes in the parking lots, loitering and other nuisances.
"We can say that we have been getting increased calls," Sgt. Grubbs also said. "It's a continuing blight on the areas in which they operate."
He pointed to one cafe at 3905 Hughes Lane #B, where officers made seven arrests in November.
Grubbs said at about 4:00 am patrol officers spotted what looked like a drug deal near the front door. Two suspects ran into the cafe, and when officers got inside they eventually made the arrests on various drug charges, including maintaining a place for the use of drugs. Sgt. Grubbs said two of those arrested were owners of the cafe.
Cafe operators have said the games are simply marketing promotions, like the sweepstakes at grocery stores or fast food restaurants.
But, the D.A.'s office started their investigation in the summer of 2012, and said they found customers had lost a lot of money in the sweepstakes. That summer, a judge ordered four cafes to stop the sweepstakes part of their businesses.
One of those was the I-Zone Internet Cafe on Auburn. Attorney Bill Slocumb said he represents the owner of the cafe there at that time, and they are still deciding what to do next in light of the appeals court ruling. He's also keeping in mind a bill has been introduced in the State Legislature that would ban the operations in California.
Attorney John Weston represents the Oz Cafe on F Street. On Tuesday, he told Eyewitness News they're also considering the next possible legal move.
"It's pretty likely we'll go to the (state) Supreme Court," Weston said by phone. The L.A.-based attorney said they could go directly to the state Supreme Court, or start by going back to the Appeals court that just issued the ruling. He adds the case is long and complicated, so a final decision is premature.
Meanwhile, at the I-Spot café at Ashe and White Lane, the door was open and several people were playing the games Monday afternoon. A woman inside said that location has been open since August. She said when the ruling came out on Friday, four I-Spot cafes shut down, but they've since reopened, and operators are waiting for "notification." She wasn't quite sure who that notification would come from.
The woman at the I-Spot also said they need to sort out what will happen, and let their employees know.
Bakersfield officials are also looking at their options.
"We're working on solving this problem, we're pleased with the (Appeals) Court decision on it," Sgt. Grubbs said. "It is high on our priority list, too. And we're aware of it, we're working to do our best to get a conclusion for it."