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By Felix Adamo / The Californian
BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly two months after joining Bakersfield's war on Internet cafes -- which city officials believe offer illegal gambling -- Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, on Wednesday unveiled a bill that would outlaw them in California.
Assembly Bill 1439, which Salas said he introduced in the state legislature on Jan. 6, would add "sweepstakes" to the list of unfair business practices prohibited under state law.
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The Bakersfield City Council's Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations Committee will meet at noon in Conference Room A at City Hall North, 1600 Truxtun Ave.
It also would outlaw "gambling-themed" or "simulated gambling electronic video" monitors in a business that "directly or indirectly implements the predetermination of sweepstakes cash, cash-equivalent prizes or other prizes of value ... ."
If the bill passes the state legislature and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown later this year, operating an Internet cafe would then become a misdemeanor crime.
"Any time you try to mimic a casino-style game like slot machines, it is illegal," Salas said, referring to Internet cafes that use software that is visually similar to slots. "This bill will bring clarity to the law to make these illegal."
But Internet cafe owner Phillip Walker, who formed the Internet Cafe Association of California, an advisory group for cafe owners throughout the state, said the assemblyman should do what city officials have been doing for months -- wait for an appellate court decision on the legality of Internet cafes before acting.
"I know how these things work, and if they're done right, it is no different than Albertsons or Rite-Aid. All those places have sweepstakes. Coca-Cola has sweepstakes," said Walker, who owns Oz Internet Cafe & Hub. "Maybe it's illegal, maybe it's legal, but wait until the court decides."
Walker compared Internet cafes to McDonald's restaurant, which offers a legal Monopoly sweepstakes in conjunction with fast food, its better-known product. He said Internet cafes sell a product too, Internet time. City officials argue that Internet cafes offer far more Internet time than anyone could ever use, don't have a real product, and host illegal gambling.
City Attorney Ginny Gennaro, who attended a press conference to announce the bill at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, said that if it's passed, AB 1439 would clarify the difference between what Internet cafes allegedly offer, and legal sweepstakes like McDonald's Monopoly.
Simulated gaming, she said, "and those types of gambling-type facilities would clearly fall under a sweepstakes definition and that would then be an unfair business practice and it would be a misdemeanor under state law."
The cafes have spread throughout Bakersfield and Kern County. Fifth District Supervisor Leticia Perez said 30 Internet cafes are currently operating on unincorporated county land, and supervisors have asked county counsel to explore creating an anti-cafe resolution or ordinance.
The Bakersfield City Council's Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations Committee will hear an update on Internet cafes Thursday.
Police Chief Greg Williamson said the city currently has 15 Internet cafes open for business -- up from an official tally of 13 in November -- and considers them magnets for related criminal activity.
"We see evidence of drug use, of violence, we have car break-ins and other thefts in the parking lots of these establishments, and we've also seen evidence of prostitution-related crime," he said.