Enforce café law


A new state law gives police and prosecutors the tools they have demanded to crack down on so-called Internet cafés — hundreds of thinly disguised, arguably illegal mini-gambling casinos across Ohio. Now the law needs to be enforced, strictly.

The statute does not explicitly ban the “sweepstakes parlors,” where customers play electronic slot machines masquerading as computer terminals. But it imposes new restrictions — such as banning cash payouts and limiting the value of prizes to $10 — that are designed to take the profit out of the operations.

The new law took effect last week after café owners and vendors failed in their effort to submit the law to voters for repeal next year, delaying its enforcement in the meantime. But operators say they now are considering a court challenge. So enforcement needs to begin before the law’s opponents can stall it further.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine offers credible evidence that many Internet cafés, far from being the benign, job-creating, taxpaying businesses that their operators claim, have been fronts for money laundering and other crimes. Raids on several cafés have yielded millions of dollars in allegedly illegal gambling proceeds.

Internet cafés tend to be located in lower-income communities whose residents are especially vulnerable to economic exploitation. Unlike Ohio’s voter-approved casinos, racetracks, and charity gaming operations, the storefront cafés have been lightly regulated, if at all.

Mr. DeWine insists that his office “will not hesitate to enforce the law … We will be watching.” Café owners now are required to register with the Attorney General’s Office and to file monthly reports on their activities.

The office’s criminal investigators now have explicit authority to look into allegations of lawbreaking at the cafés. Mr. DeWine says the new law distinguishes between the cafés and other retailers that sponsor promotional sweepstakes.

If the law is to work, state regulators will need full support from local law enforcement officials. Mr. DeWine’s pledge to advise all 88 county prosecutors of the locations of Internet cafés in their jurisdictions is a good start, but only that.

Whatever their other duties, local police and prosecutors must take this enforcement effort seriously. Ohio doesn’t need Internet cafés, or the crime and exploitation that accompany them. It’s time to shut them down for good.