Gambling trial to examine the role of adult arcades

Broward County’s adult game rooms will undergo a major legal test this week as the woman who is the industry’s public face goes on trial on felony gambling charges.

In the first such criminal trial in the county — and one of the first statewide — Gale Fontaine, 56, will go before a Broward Circuit Court jury, arguing the game rooms are retirees‘ equivalent of children’s amusement arcades.

Fontaine is owner of the Tropicana Rec Room in Pompano Beach. It is one of the estimated 100 adult arcades that have opened in the past few years in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. Catering almost entirely to retirees, the arcades are filled with video machines on which players press buttons to stop spinning reels of symbols. Winning combinations turn into in-house prizes and gift certificates.

Arcade opponents argue the machines are unregulated, illegal slots. Arcade operators say the machines are legal under the state’s „Chuck E. Cheese law“ because they require an „application of skill.“ With no definitive ruling by the state Supreme Court or clear standards passed by the Legislature, it has been up to municipalities and counties to determine whether the machines are legal.

Some Florida cities and counties have banned the machines. Others, such as Palm Beach County, have allowed the arcades to flourish.

But in Broward, sheriff’s deputies have raided at least five adult arcades in the past two years.

Fontaine’s decision to fight the charges comes with high stakes. She could spend up to a decade in prison if convicted of all three charges: felony counts of keeping a gambling house and lottery law violation and a misdemeanor charge of possessing a gambling device.

„She believes what she is doing is right,“ said Fontaine’s attorney, David Oscar Markus. „The people that come to her arcades want her to fight for them. She’s fighting for them just as much as she is fighting for herself.“

Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, has said she is a victim of selective prosecution, blaming Broward County’s pari-mutuels for her December arrest. She said the pari-mutuels view the arcades as competition to their upcoming slots.

Prosecutors have said politics played no role in their decision to charge Fontaine.

Dan Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras Racetrack & Gaming Center, formerly Hollywood Greyhound Track, said Thursday that with the coming of slots to the pari-mutuels, adult arcades have been far from his mind. The pari-mutuels had nothing to do with Fontaine’s case, he said.

„I do personally think [adult arcades] are a problem,“ he said. „These machines are not regulated and are certainly games of chance. My personal opinion is that they prey on the elderly in an unfair way.“

Of the eight adult arcade operators arrested in Broward County besides Fontaine, seven have cut deals with prosecutors, each pleading no contest to a misdemeanor, agreeing to six months‘ probation and surrendering their machines. One is awaiting trial.

It’s rare for arcade owners who have been charged with crimes in Florida to risk incarceration as opposed to taking a plea deal, said Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who co-wrote a book on gambling law.

„If she loses, given how high-profile she is, it will give operators a lot of second thoughts,“ Jarvis said. „They will say, `If they got her, they can get me.'“

Both sides in the criminal cases are expected to present gambling experts supporting their positions on whether the machines require skill.

In addition, Markus said some of Fontaine’s customers will testify about what the arcades mean to them.

The arcades have developed a passionate following. Almost 200 retirees held a June rally in support of Fontaine outside the Broward County Courthouse. They say the arcades provide places where they can gather, have fun and eat free lunches and dinners.

Jurors also could learn how much money the Tropicana Rec Room made and how much patrons won. Prosecutor Gregg Rossman declined to discuss the case, but Jarvis said he expects the state will introduce the arcade’s business records seized in the Oct. 19 raid. If the patrons received only minimal winnings, that revelation could have a „visceral impact on the jury,“ Jarvis said.

Fontaine said last year that one of her arcades, Johnny’s Rec Room, grossed USD 3,000 to USD 4,000 a day and that 65 percent was paid back in winnings.