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Ohio Attorney General Takes On Internet Cafes

In Ohio internet cafes have attracted the attention of the state’s attorney general Mike DeWine. Recently search warrants were served at six of the internet cafes and DeWine announced new efforts by his office to curb illegal gambling. The actions by law enforcement agencies came as DeWine made a public relations effort urging legislators to pass a bill regulating the storefront gambling operations. DeWine said that going after the operations with criminal investigations was “the hard way” to approach the problem. “This is not the easy way to do it,” DeWine said after briefing prosecutors from around the state at a meeting of law enforcement agencies in Columbus. DeWine also announced the creation of an internal advisory group designed to aid police and prosecutors. DeWine stated “This frankly is the hard way. We are now committed to fight this battle county by county and courthouse to courthouse, and that’s exactly what this fight will be.”

Late last year the Ohio House passed a bill to crack down on the internet cafes but the bill failed in the Senate where leaders said that they needed more time. In March the House passed a bill that would impose background checks, registration requirements and operating restrictions. The bill is now pending in a Senate committee. House Speaker William Batchelder said his chamber has taken action and added “I don’t know aside from some sort of a native dance what we might add to that.” Senate President Keith Faber said his chamber is working on the law but noted state budget hearings will take up most of the Senate’s time this spring. Faber stated “I don’t think anybody in our caucus believes that Internet cafes should just be left to do what they’re doing now.”

Faber said he in favor of a bill that would extend the moratorium on new cafes. Any new law regulating the cafes could raise constitutional questions because the issue of permitting the cafes as gambling operations has not been put before the voters. Peter Thomas, head of DeWine’s Charitable Law division, said “That is obviously an issue.” DeWine says his authority to prosecute the cafes for illegal gambling comes from a district court ruling that said the cafes in Cleveland were illegal. DeWine said he has been forced to take action because of the court’s decision and the inaction of lawmakers.

Backers of the cafes say the businesses are legal and help the economy. Backers say the court ruling only applies to cafes in Cleveland and pointed to a Toledo court decision that said the cafes were legal. DeWine said that prosecuting the cafes is expensive and complicated and that police throughout the state have their hands full dealing with heroin overdoses and illegal pain pill sales. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said in a letter to Faber that his agency does not have the time or resources to go after the cafes in his jurisdiction. O’Brien likened the situation to the “whack-a-mole” carnival game, where one closes, “and two others open.”

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