Kern DA reports no Internet cafes operating by deadline

Kern DA reports no Internet cafes operating by deadline
A Fun Zone Internet Sweepstakes Cafe is seen in Bakersfield in an October 2011 file photo.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The Kern County District Attorney's Office put out a Friday deadline for so-called Internet cafes to stop running sweepstakes games, and a spokesman said they all appear to be shut down.

Officials said one cafe may be open, but it's apparently only offering Internet service, not sweepstakes.

"We're very pleased to announce not a single cafe is offering a sweepstakes game," Deputy District Attorney Greg Pulskamp told Eyewitness News Friday morning.

On Thursday, Bakersfield police told the City Council Safe Neighborhood Committee there were most recently 12 of the cafes operating in the city. A number have also been running in county areas.

The Joint Vice Task Force has kept an eye on the operations, after city and county officials got complaints from nearby businesses over the past months. Neighboring merchants said crimes like drug-sales, fights and loitering happened too much by the cafes.

On March 17, the D.A.'s office sent a letter to all cafe operators ordering them to "immediately cease and desist all gambling activity including the so-called 'sweepstakes.'" The letter told them to contact the D.A.'s office by Friday. Pulskamp said most had.

The D.A. sent the letters after winning a ruling at the appeals court level, affirming a previous Kern County Superior Court ruling that found the operations amount to illegal gambling.

The cafe operators had argued the games are just sweepstakes, like customers could often find at grocery chains or fast-food restaurants. The appeals court disagreed.

Just after that came out, Eyewitness News walked in the I-Spot cafe off White Lane on March 10. It was open with a few customers at the computers, and a worker said they were waiting for some notification about what to do next.

On Friday, that cafe was closed, dark and locked up.

Earlier in the week, Eyewitness News checked at the Express Connect cafe on Oak Street. It was closed, and a sign on the door read "Welcome to Express Connect. Now go home."

I-Sweeps Internet off Hughes and White Lane was also shut down, and boxes could be seen piled up inside the dark building. That's one location Bakersfield City Council member Russell Johnson had gotten complaints about. The Safe Neighborhoods Committee had heard concerns for months.

When the D.A.'s office sent out their letters to cafe owners, the Bakersfield city attorney had also sent letters to property owners where cafes operated. One City Council member said a landlord reported he was happy to get that letter, because it would help him remove what he called a "problem tenant."

On Thursday, Pulskamp told the City Council members the ruling in Kern's case had "made law" in the state, and it could help other cities and counties with their legal challenges to sweepstakes cafes. Some of those include cases involving the companies making the software for the Internet sweepstakes games.

Pulskamp said that could be Kern's next step.

"We could take a good look at the software companies, in conjunction with other counties, cities or the state attorney general," he told Eyewitness News.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Internet cafe owners said they might have more comment next week.

The sweepstakes cafes in Kern County could still appeal the recent ruling. Pulskamp said they still wouldn't get to open up.

"Even if they appeal, and the California Supreme Court decided to hear (their case), that's not enough to suspend our enforcement," Pulskamp said. He said there are now several judges supporting Kern's analysis that the games are illegal gambling.