County Council to address Internet sweepstakes cafes

Policy choices could be limited because of businesses already operating

nophillips@thestate.com June 5, 2012 

Richland County Council tonight will discuss options for dealing with Internet sweepstakes cafes that have opened on Two Notch Road.

County Administrator Milton Pope will ask council for policy guidance, said Stephany Snowden, the county spokeswoman. It’s also possible council could discuss the Internet sweepstakes businesses during a closed executive session with the county attorney.

Since May, at least three Internet sweepstakes cafes have opened or have planned to open in Richland County. They have been creeping into operation across the state as owners challenge a loophole in state law that they believe legalizes their games.

At the cafes, customers buy Internet access or phone cards and are given chances to play video poker or slots to win prizes. The operators have argued their businesses are no different than McDonald’s offering game pieces in exchange for buying hamburgers or sodas.

The State Law Enforcement Division, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson have taken the position that the cafes are illegal. Statewide, law enforcement has experienced mixed outcomes when presenting their cases in court, and no definitive ruling has been made. In Richland County, law enforcement has not attempted to shut down the cafes.

The county has not decided whether it wants to attempt a ban on the businesses. The staff just wants to know where council members stand, Snowden said.

Robert Croom, deputy general counsel for the S.C. Association of Counties, said it was a new issue and he did not know what options council might have.

But it may be too late for administrative options for banning the cafes.

Columbia City Council earlier this year found out how hard it can be to ban a business that it already has issued a license to.

When Taboo, a sex shop, opened on Devine Street, City Council adopted an ordinance to address sexually oriented businesses. But Taboo received an exemption.

Attorneys advised City Council that courts generally allowed businesses to recoup investments before a law change can close a private operation.

Still, Snowden said it would be inaccurate to characterize the Internet sweepstakes situation as one that County Council has arrived too late on.

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