Attorney: Sebastian game rooms to close until third court hearing

RAYMONDVILLE — Finally, the case testing a tough, new game room ordinance is moving.

After languishing seven months in court, four Sebastian game rooms are apparently shutting down — at least for now.

Yesterday, state District Judge Adolfo Cordova denied four Sebastian game room owners’ requests for temporary injunctions that could have allowed them to remain open until they go to trial in August.

The game rooms, testing the constitutionality of the new county ordinance, argue the county unfairly denied them permits to operate their businesses.

Since last August, temporary restraining orders had allowed the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost to stay open until Cordova’s ruling.

Jason Mann, an attorney representing the game rooms, requested Cordova grant the temporary injunction to allow the eight-liner arcades to remain in business until the court determines whether the county was justified in denying them permits.

Before handing down his ruling, Cordova said a temporary injunction would prevent the county from enforcing its new ordinance aimed at regulating game rooms in the vast unincorporated area.

Cordova also set an April 23 hearing to determine whether county officials justifiably denied the game rooms’ applications for permits to operate their businesses.

After the game rooms’ attorneys requested time to gather evidence to build their cases, Cordova set an Aug. 19 trial date.

“I’m telling you all that I want this moved. Let’s get this done,” Cordova, who took office Jan. 1, told attorneys. “This is not a complicated case. These are not complicated issues. This could be easily dealt with quickly. I don’t want to address it quickly at the cost of not giving everyone a fair shake.”

After the court hearing, attorney Robert Flores, who is representing the game rooms, said he will recommend they close until an April 23 hearing in which Cordova is expected to rule on whether Willacy County officials justifiably denied their applications for permits last year.

Finally moving

“That’s great news. It’s a step in the right direction for our little town,” Joe Salinas, who helped launch a push to drive game rooms out of town, said yesterday. “That makes us cautiously optimistic. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster.”

For years, Sheriff Larry Spence helped push county commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.

“It’s a step forward,” Spence said of Cordova’s ruling. “At least you see some progress being made. It shows it’s moving forward. We’ve still got a way to go.”

Big fines

For the four game rooms, the stakes are high.

If they lose their cases, they could face fines of $10,000 for every day they operated under temporary restraining orders.

“They don’t have permits so they’re subject to legal penalties,” Ricardo Morado, an attorney representing the county, told Cordova.

The case boils down to the county’s new ordinance.

“We believe the ordinance is constitutionally sound,” District Attorney Annette Hinojosa, who helped draft the ordinance, told Cordova.

But Flores believes the ordinance restricts business.

“The ordinance is unconstitutional because it constricts commerce,” Flores said after the hearing. “These are lawful businesses. They are on the up-and-up and all this time they’ve been complying with the ordinance.”

For years, residents such as Salinas called on county commissioners to approve an ordinance to regulate game rooms.

Then about three years ago, as many as 10 to 12 game rooms sprang up in Sebastian, just north of the Cameron County line.

How we got here

A year ago today, commissioners approved the ordinance that sets tough restrictions.

Under the ordinance, game rooms are required to operate at least 300 feet from homes, schools and churches — and 2,500 feet from other eight-liner arcades.

Meanwhile, it hits game room owners in the pocketbook, setting fines of $10,000 a day for violations.

Under the ordinance, the game rooms were required to re-apply for permits to operate their businesses.

After the sheriff’s department reviewed applications, the county granted permits to three game rooms.

In response, the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost argued the county unfairly rejected their applications, denying them their due process rights.

Court shuffle

Spence denies the game rooms’ argument.

“I believe we handled everybody fairly,” he said after the hearing. “We didn’t treat anybody different.”

Last August, state District Judge Migdalia Lopez granted the four game rooms their requests for temporary restraining orders.

Less than a month later, Morado requested the cases be moved from state court to federal court because their due process arguments constituted federal claims.

After the federal claim was removed, the case was moved back to state District court in late December.

“It’s dragged on,” Salinas said. “I was losing faith in our legal system. This has been going on too long.”