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Florida Jury Acquits - And Cheers - Sweepstakes Videogame Operator

Posted On: 11/4/2010

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OCALA, FL -- Jurors in a Marion County court on Oct. 18 acquitted Jeaneen Crisante of Marion Internet Services of felony gambling charges and a misdemeanor slot machine possession charge.

In a scene that recalled the triumphant acquittal of another Florida operator on gambling charges several years earlier, jurors deliberated for under an hour -- then cheered and clapped for Crisante as the "not guilty" verdict was announced.

Crisante and her husband operated an Internet café for several months in 2009. The venue was raided and closed, and both were arrested.

Internet sweepstakes games sell time on computers while allowing patrons to enter a sweepstakes, typically for cash prizes. Patrons often play slot-style videogames to learn the outcome of the sweepstakes drawing.

Operators say these games are legal promotions, no different than a fast-food restaurant promotion. District attorneys, city councils and police in jurisdictions up and down the East Coast have denounced sweepstakes games as illegal gambling in numerous cases.

So far, only North Carolina has explicitly outlawed sweepstakes videogames in legislation that takes effect on Dec. 1.

According to local press reports, Ocala prosecutors charged another Internet café operator -- Jeff Reed of the Cyber Zone E Cafe -- with illegal gambling in 2009. The original case was thrown out when the judge ruled the state lacked enough evidence to prosecute. Reed reportedly reopened his site, was arrested again and faces another trial in December.

Florida's assistant state attorney, Mark Simpson, has led the campaign against sweepstakes videogames in the Sunshine State. He said his office was "in it for the long haul" and intends to continue mounting prosecutions against sweepstakes operators.

Florida juries, however, have shown a markedly pro-operator viewpoint. In 2005, jurors also cheered and clapped when Gale Fontaine of Tropicana Rec Room (Pompano Beach) won her criminal trial. Fonaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, had been charged with illegal gambling charges in connection with her longtime licensed bingo parlors, which featured adult redemption games.