Sorry, Florida Watchers: The Zany State Did Not Accidentally Outlaw Computers

Computers: banned in Florida?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Back the truck up, compadres. Florida did not just inadvertently outlaw the 21st century. The Internet lit up Wednesday with reports of a new lawsuit claiming that, in its efforts to crack down on illegal gambling, the state had banned all computers, smartphones, or other devices capable of connecting to the Web. What happened: In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill making illegal slot machines, which the bill defined (in admittedly billowy terms) as “any machine or device or system or network of devices” that requires “an account number, code, or other object or information” to play “games of chance or skill.” The point was to outlaw the practice of using Internet café computers as provisional slot machines—and it worked, forcing more than 1,000 cafes and 200 adult arcades to close their doors. One such café owner, Consuelo Zapata, filed a lawsuit with the firm Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine in protest, alleging that what the new law described as a slot machine could really just be any piece of machinery with Internet access. (Constitutional law luminary Alan Dershowitz helped construct the argument.) “They [the Florida legislature] took what they saw as a very specific problem and essentially criminalized everything,” said attorney Justin Kaplan. In his formulation, not even the computers “used to draft this legislation” were spared the scythe-like sweep of the Luddite pen.  

But the courts are unlikely to see it that way, says David Abraham, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “I would suspect a court would read words like ‘and is used for such purposes’ as assumed by the legislation,” he writes in an email. His colleague, the law professor Michael Froomkin, agrees, because, well, one default assumption made by the judiciary when interpreting the law is that lawmakers aren’t stupid. As he puts it, “We don’t usually interpret statutes to do something ridiculous unless it is clear the legislature intended that result or the words admit no other meaning. If we can construe the terms sensibly we usually do so.”

What’s more, Froomkin explains, courts strive to follow an “avoidance rule,” interpreting statutes (where possible) in ways that don’t raise constitutional red flags. Since “outlawing phones and computers would have a First Amendment dimension,” he writes, judges would likely be “reluctant” to imbue the law with such problematic authority.

So, while I’m sorry to disappoint fans of the tantalizingly loony, it does not seem that Florida has actually blasted itself back into the Dark Ages by accident. Like one of the Sunshine State’s professional mermaids, Zapata’s lawsuit is unlikely to find its legs, and Russian circus midgets, nude biker gangs, and the other weird and wacky denizens of Florida can go back to Googling antidotes to Giant African Land Snail mucus in peace.