Florida House Approves Sweepstakes Bill That Could Ban Online Poker

March 22, 2013
Florida House Approves Sweepstakes Bill That Could Ban Online Poker

The Florida House passed a bill today that would alter the language used to describe slot machines and other gambling devices that a player could use to win money.  The bill passed by a margin of 108-7.  The language of the bill would explicitly make it illegal for an electronic device to accept currency, coins, and more importantly to online poker players, account numbers or code, that could then reward a player with extra credits, cash, prizes or anything of value unless it is at an approved racetrack, reservation or casino property.

This bill was rushed through the Florida House to deal with an illegal gambling scandal this month that forced the resignation of the State’s Lieutenant Governor.  The issues surround internet cafes that give their customers a chance to win prizes when buying internet time.  A player would enter a code from a prize card that receive from the internet cafe and then the player could play games that resembled slot machines or video poker on computers or other electronic devices.  Players could then win prizes based on the results of their play.

The machine owners attempted to find a back door through sweepstakes laws by offering free play as an additional benefit of buying internet time.  In response to this, federal authorities launched “Operation Reveal the Deal” where 49 internet cafes, referred to as gambling centers by prosecutors, were raided.  These locations were owned by charities that authorities have accused of being a front for illegal gambling.  The bill passed by the Florida House today would close this loophole that has led to hundreds of strip mall internet sweepstakes locations in the State.

This loophole is not unique to Florida.  Alabama, North Carolina and Ohio have all had battles with internet cafes using similar business models that popped up within their borders as a way around state gambling laws.

Online Poker Not Targeted But Still Covered

Online poker may be an unintended victim of this bill.  A computer may not be used if a player can enter anything to receive credits and use those credits to win anything of value.  This language could be applied to online poker and other games played over the internet for money.  Online poker may not have been the target, but it could make harder for online poker to become legalized and regulated in Florida.  Portions of this bill would need to be repealed without allowing the internet sweepstakes cafes another back door to reappear across Florida.

There may be another issue.  If existing US facing online poker rooms interpret this bill as a ban of online poker in Florida they may restrict new signups from the State or outright close to residents.  Utah and Washington are examples of where state laws were passed and online gambling companies took notice.  This bill does not specifically address online poker, but it does define how a computer can become an illegal gambling device.

Subscription online poker sites may need to be reading this bill to see if it applies to them as well.  Subscription online poker rooms such as ClubWPT accept players from Florida using exemptions under sweepstakes laws that would be changed if this bill becomes law.

Gambling is allowed in several forms in Florida.  The state allows racetracks and reservation gambling where poker, slots and electronic tables games are allowed.  Bingo is also allowed in the state.  Attempts to approve resort style casinos in South Florida have failed to this point, but Florida is certainly no stranger to legalized gambling.  It appears that this type of unregulated gambling is not what Florida wants to see anymore, especially with the recent political scandal it caused.  Unfortunately for online poker players, they may become victims of a law that was not directed to them at all.

Additional Source: PokerXanadu summary at Two Plus Two

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