The district attorney’s office sent cease-and-desist letters Monday to county sweepstakes or Internet cafe owners with a rare offer of eleventh hour amnesty.
The letters began being hand-delivered Friday by Kern County Sheriff’s Office deputies and local police, Deputy District Attorney Greg Pulskamp said in an afternoon press conference at the offices of the Kern County District Attorney’s white collar crime unit.
They went to about 25 Internet cafes from Ridgecrest to Bakersfield that are open or have been recently.
In an unusual strategy borne out of pleas from residents who want Internet cafes to go away fast, Pulskamp said the county is offering cafe owners two separate deadlines and a way out.
In the letter, the county advises cafe owners to stop all gambling immediately, including illegal sweepstakes, and contact the district attorney’s office by Friday.
Those who do most likely won’t be prosecuted.
“We’re not guaranteeing that, but we’re saying our intent right now is to let them go,” Pulskamp said. “Let them go into the night and they had a good run at it. As long as they stop right now, we’ll call it good.”
Pulskamp said cafes that do not comply will be targeted for closure.
Cafe owners who do not cease all gambling activity will be prosecuted for the entire period of time during which they’ve operated, Pulskamp said — not just their time open since receiving this letter.
Noncompliant owners could also be prosecuted per cafe, for those who own more than one; per computer with illegal games; and per month they’ve remained open in violation, Pulskamp said.
He declined to disclose exact enforcement details, but did say the district attorney’s office is also eyeing the software company that produced the computer programs used by many Internet cafes, and assessing its “degree of culpability.”
The Bakersfield City Attorney’s office sent cease-and-desist letters to city Internet cafes in August, at the direction of a Bakersfield City Council committee.
But City Attorney Ginny Gennaro described those letters, which were sent to cafe owners and their landlords, as “more of an educational process” because the city and the county then lacked the legal authority to shut the cafes down.
Times have changed.
Published opinions March 7 and March 10 by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno affirmed that sweepstakes or Internet cafes that sell Internet time or prepaid telephone cards offer “unlawful slot machine”-style gambling.
The appellate court upheld orders by a Kern County Superior Court judge that, based on state anti-gambling statutes, six cafe owners could not run any type of so-called “sweepstakes.”
The district attorney’s office’s letter referenced the cases and warned all county cafe owners to contact them by Friday to schedule a chat.
“... you or your attorney should call to arrange a conference in our Office to discuss this matter,” the letter said.
If not, the letter warned, Kern County will “pursue the appropriate legal remedies on behalf of the People of California.”
Pulskamp said the district attorney’s office mainly wants to talk to cafe owners to ensure they understand the letter and what will happen if they fail to comply.
Gennaro said the City Attorney’s office — one of several law enforcement agencies countywide that met March 11 to discuss the court opinions — will be sending a new round of cease-and-desist letters this week to Bakersfield landlords who rent to Internet cafes.
“I like how the plan is unfolding. You’ve got the district attorney really focused on the operation of the sweepstakes cafes,” Gennaro said. “And you have the city really focused not just on the sweepstakes cafes, but how to get the property owner to acknowledge and realize these are illegal uses.”
Internet cafe owner Phillip Walker, who formed the Internet Cafe Association of California, was an appellant in the March 7 case.
Walker confirmed he received the letter from the district attorney’s office Saturday, but said his cafe hasn’t offered sweepstakes since Aug. 7, 2012, according to the terms of the original court order.
The cafe owner said he believes most, if not all, of his fellow proprietors will be closing down in an effort to comply, but terms of the letter led many to think they had until Friday to stop the gambling.
“It’s too vague, and see, that’s been the problem here,” Walker said. “Everyone needs to be more clear on all this and then the cafe owners will follow it.”