Internet cafes may be a "nice" business -- but they could also soon be outlawed.
"I think that my guys put together a nice business. If it's not illegal," Beverly Hills attorney Neil Newson said recently of his Los Angeles client Roman Doktorovich, Jr., one of two men who own iSweeps Internet Cafe in southwest Bakersfield, adding matter-of-factly, "If it's illegal, they're going to be gone."
That "if" is what everyone's waiting for these days -- a ruling expected later this year from the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, on whether Bakersfield's 13 active Internet cafes are humble purveyors of Internet access and copy and fax services, or houses of forbidden gaming.
An appellate court ruling on whether a Kern County Superior Court judge acted appropriately last year in ordering the closure of five cafes and the seizure of their equipment would bolster arguments by the city of Bakersfield and the county of Kern that the establishments offer nothing more than illegal gambling, under the guise of a sweepstakes that cafe owners compare to the legal McDonald's Monopoly game.
Until the ruling arrives, and the Kern County District Attorney's office starts filing cases against cafes again, the city is building a paper trail it can use to prosecute the cafes as nuisances in civil court.
The city has sent letters to cafe owners informing them that "Las Vegas-style electronic slot machines" are prohibited under penal code. It also has sent letters to landlords informing them that Internet cafes "may be illegal" under California law, and are believed to "attract a criminal element." A 14th cafe is under construction.
"It's very similar to a barking dog-type case," said City Attorney Ginny Gennaro. "You look at the same thing. Would an objective person be offended by what's occurring? How do I prove it?"
Cafe owners aren't quite wringing their hands, which may or may not be full of money. A raid earlier this year on two cafes in Visalia netted more than $100,000 cash. The city of Visalia is awaiting its own appellate court decision after being sued by the cafes' owner.
Doktorovich and other cafe owners say their businesses are not cash cows, and that they typically must pay a percentage of their earnings each month to software providers -- although in a court filing, Doktorovich's own attorney describes the business as "quite profitable."
"I think the best analogy would be, we've got a very high profit business trying to squeak through legal loopholes, similar to the medical marijuana dispensaries. The tenants justify the risks as a result of the huge profit margins," said Bakersfield attorney Ronald Dessy, who represents Doktorovich's landlord, Dr. Manbir Singh.
After an unsuccessful attempt this spring, Dessy said he again is trying to evict Doktorovich, whom Dessy said does not have a valid insurance policy for the cafe, and iNet, a second Internet cafe that opened July 27 in the same shopping center.
Doktorovich, co-owner of iSweeps with Oleg Reut, said his insurance policy has always been up to date. Three days after iNet opened, he and Reut sued Singh and Sukhwinder Sohi, iNet's owner.
They accuse Singh of breaching their lease by backing iNet, and they accuse Sohi of opening a competing business -- and attempting to have the city prosecute iSweeps. Attempts to reach Sohi were unsuccessful.
Singh said he wants both cafes gone.
"My office is right next to an Internet cafe. I basically deal with families, with kids, and seniors, and they don't feel comfortable with people standing outside smoking, and doing things they're not supposed to do," said Singh, an internist, one of whose three branch offices is indeed a short walk from iNet and iSweeps.
"We did not know that they are gambling people. We were misinformed. The real picture came out after they were already established."
Legally, the question is still why Internet cafe patrons are there in the first place.
Cafe owners who have taken their cause to district court are arguing their customers come to surf the Internet, and the fact that they're entered into a sweepstakes with a cash prize when they buy Internet time is merely what a Vegas-style slot machine might term a "random monkey bonus."
Terri Jackson, a clerk at iSweeps, reminds a reporter that the Internet games, many of which visually resemble slot machines, are in fact "sweepstakes games," and that a gamer doesn't cash in points -- for cash -- but instead, "you redeem your prize."
Law enforcement officials think visitors may stay for the Internet time, but they come for the chance to win a sweepstakes.
"That's one of their arguments. You can sit down and surf the Internet," said Kern County Deputy District Attorney Gregory Pulskamp. "They say you're not giving money for the chance to win more money.
"We don't think so," he said. "We think you're paying for the chance to win more money."
Customers who will talk to a reporter disagree.
"I love 'em," said retiree Laura Dock, who won $600 at Linked-In Business Services Center in southwest Bakersfield in her best week. "If it weren't for this cafe, I wouldn't have anywhere to go during the day except stay in bed."
"This serves its purpose, because yesterday I helped a friend of mine who got his phone stolen," said iSweeps patron Enrique Suarez, who was able to use the cafe's Internet to download an app that tracked his friend's purloined iPhone -- but found it too far away to recover.
"They're just for entertainment purposes," said Kathy Stevenson, a recent customer at the Lucky Lady Internet Cafe in Bakersfield's downtown, calling sweepstakes winners "predetermined."
Lucky Lady's neighbors are calling the cafe something else.
"I've had at least three people who have left the salon, who didn't want to work here because of this. It used to be cozy and fun, and now something happens every day," said Lynae Cummings, owner of Scissorhands Salon & Boutique, next door to the cafe. "We're used to bums downtown, but this is different. We had to call the police because they let a homeless person hang out in our hallway."
Lucky Lady cashier James Washington disputes her account, praising efforts by public and private law enforcement to make downtown safe.
"They haven't really loitered," Washington said. "Bakersfield police are doing a fine job. We have a security officer here and that (loitering) isn't allowed. That's why we have signs up here."
Wes Bradford, whose company Bradford Properties, LLC, owns the building where Scissorhands and the Lucky Lady lease space, sides with the salon.
"We've gotten letters from almost every tenant wanting to move out. We've now hired a patrol service to patrol at night. Every time we get a complaint, we forward it to them," Bradford said. "Believe me if the courts or the law would allow me to evict them, I would. I have no grounds to evict them."
An appellate court ruling, of course, could change that.