And the Winner Is ...

Could you win a restaurant just by writing an essay?

In order not to be cheated, it's a good idea for essay writers to investigate the legality of the giveaway, which depends on the state and county in which the contest is being engineered. In most states an essay contest, where some element of skill is involved, is legal.

But in many, including Florida, where a state lottery is established, contests that can undermine it are considered illegal. Gambling of any kind also is strictly regulated. In particular the general public should be wary of raffles, such as the one currently being run by a restaurateur, who will only identify himself as Jeff, and who won't reveal the name of the eatery he is giving away in Boca Raton because, “I'm trying to keep it where business isn't interrupted.” Posted as a small ad in the back section of Nation's Restaurant News, the contest is advertised as a “$100 raffle ticket [that] could win you your own restaurant/café!!” The ad specifies that 2000 tickets will be sold, and that the unnamed eatery, a turnkey operation that will include all furniture, fixtures, and equipment, currently is grossing approximately $300,000. Jeff claims, too, that the business has no debt or liens, and that the checks from entrants go into an escrow account overseen by his law firm, Weintraub and Weintraub in Deerfield Beach.

Johni Hardiman, division chief of the criminal intake unit for the State Attorney's Office in Miami-Dade County, admits, “I would have questions if I were considering buying a ticket.” But she admits the rules are sometimes relaxed for nonprofit organizations such as churches, synagogues, or schools who want to run a raffle.

A private enterprise is hardly nonprofit, though. According to Connie Crawford, bureau chief in the division of licensing at the Department of State in Tallahassee, such a raffle is indeed illegal in Florida. She cites Florida gambling statute 849.094, which states that “it is unlawful for any operator ... to require an entry fee, payment, or proof of purchase as a condition of entering a game promotion.” Game promotion is defined as a contest, game of chance, or gift enterprise. Jeff is calling his contest a sweepstakes, but Crawford says, “A sweepstakes is only legal if it does not require an entry fee.”

Assistant Attorney General Bob Buchner of Broward County concurs that this particular raffle is illegal. He points out that there is “a fee, a prize, and a primary element of chance -- the three things that constitute gambling.” It may be that Jeff is following the advice of the ex-con in The Spitfire Grill who, when queried about the legality of the contest, ventured, “It must be legal if it's been done before.”

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