Local News

Thursday, Aug 15 2013 05:51 PM

City will send 'nuisance' letters to Internet cafe owners and landlords as officials await a court decision

BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Despite a month of stepped-up police patrols, the number of city Internet cafes has increased from 10 to 13, with a 14th cafe under construction, a Bakersfield police lieutenant told the Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations Committee on Thursday.

Owners and patrons claim that the businesses offer a sweepstakes similar to the Monopoly game offered by McDonald's restaurants, but city officials say their establishments are outlets for illegal gambling.

The Kern County District Attorney's office, however, is awaiting a decision from the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno before prosecuting Internet cafes for illegal gambling.

During the past 16 and a half weeks, Bakersfield's then-10 known Internet cafes generated 146 calls for service -- a number due in part to the fact that police stepped up patrols last month at the committee's request, Bakersfield police Lt. Jorge Gomez told the committee.

"As far as calls for service, they're minimal. However, you'll notice I-Sweeps Internet Cafe as well as Cyber Hot Spot, there's a lot more," Gomez told the committee, which comprises three City Council representatives.

According to a police department memorandum, I-Sweeps, 3945 Hughes Lane, had 50 calls for service from March 13 to Aug. 6, while Cyber Hot Spot, 714 Oak St., had 48.

Of these calls, though, 17 at I-Sweeps and 36 at Cyber Hot Spot were patrol-initiated stops. Other calls included 19 at I-Sweeps for disturbing the peace, 3 suspicious subject calls at I-Sweeps, and 4 suspicious subject calls at Cyber Hot Spot.

By comparison, third on the list was Computer Time, 333 Union Ave., with 10 calls for service from March 13 to Aug. 6.

Bakersfield police also made 13 felony arrests and 10 misdemeanor arrests outside the 10 Internet cafes between July 12 and Aug. 6.

City officials told the committee they believe I-Sweeps is being evicted by its landlord, but the cafe's attorney, Neil Newson of Beverly Hills, disagreed.

"Not at this very moment. As far as we know, the act we're conducting at that location is not illegal. If it is an illegal act, we'll stop immediately and close down. We're really trying to be good neighbors," Newson said, acknowledging that the district court cases should decide the issue one way or the other.

An employee at Cyber Hot Spot declined to comment.

Committee members directed the city attorney's office to send nuisance letters to owners of all known Internet cafes and their landlords, informing them that it believes the cafes to be illegal, and that they may be attracting unsavory elements. Previously, only three cafe owners were sent letters.

As also indicated in the police memorandum, Internet cafes have opened in Visalia, 80 miles north, in Tulare County. Visalia City Attorney Alex Peltzer said that the city and police department are being sued by the owner of two Internet cafes the police closed earlier this year, seeking the return of confiscated computers, and nearly $100,000 in cash.

The Visalia case is being watched by Bakersfield officials, because owners of five Internet cafes the city closed last year have appealed verdicts against them to the district court -- inhibiting the city's efforts to target other cafes.

"We're not filing any more cases right now ... but we are still working them. Law enforcement is still investigating, filing, documenting who the owners are," Kern County Deputy District Attorney Gregory Pulskamp said in an interview. "So, the business owners shouldn't get too comfortable at all."

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