Law & the Courts

Single Mom Faces Year In Jail For Selling a Plate of Ceviche

Mariza Ruelas (image via fox40.com)
Yes — as in the seafood dish

A single mother from Stockton, Calif., is facing up to a year in jail because she sold a plate of her homemade ceviche to an undercover police officer.

According to local news source Fox 40,  Mariza Reulas was on “209 Food Spot” — a Facebook group where Stockton residents organize potlucks and sometimes sell their food — last December when she made a fateful decision: When a member of the group asked to buy some of her homemade ceviche, she agreed to sell it.

She was then cited by San Joaquin County for selling an “illegal substance” and is now facing up to a year in jail.

Fox 40 also reports that “about a dozen others” were “cited for two misdemeanors for operating a food facility and engaging in business without a permit” as a result of the sting operation. Everyone but Ruelas, however, agreed to plead down to three months of probation, which means that her case is the only one in court.

Ruelas, a single mother of six, told Fox 40 that the legal proceedings have been especially hard on her six-year-old son, Justice:

“The night before he always asks like are you going to come back?” she said.

Now, you might think that a single mother trying to use her cooking skills to supplement her income is not a reason for her to potentially be taken away from her children, but San Joaquin County deputy district attorney Kelly McDaniel insisted to Fox 40 that selling food without a health-department inspection puts the person eating it in considerable danger and isn’t fair to the business owners who do get permits.

“I don’t write the laws, I enforce them,” McDaniel said. “And the legislature has felt that this is a crime.”

Okay. A few things:

One: If eating food not subject to health-department inspection really does amount to putting yourself in real danger, then I must be adventurous as hell. Not to brag, but when I go to friends’ and family members’ houses for dinner, I don’t even bother to ask whether or not the spaghetti and meatballs they’re serving has been inspected by government officials before I eat it.  

Two: If there is a small-ceviche-business owner in Stockton who is actually being affected by Reulas’s Facebook actions, then I will eat my own foot.

Three: Trying to play this off on “the legislature” is disingenuous. After all, it’s not like the police department that accidentally came across this sale had no choice but to prosecute Ruelas in order to comply with the law. No . . . it purposely, proactively deployed at least one undercover investigator — undercover investigator! — to go into that Facebook group and find people to charge. An officer reached out to Ruelas, asking to buy her ceviche, purposely setting her up to get into trouble with the law.  

Now we have cops trolling neighborly little help-me-and-I’ll-help-you Facebook groups actually looking for people to prosecute.

Honestly, this is almost too outrageous for words. I’ve heard plenty of stories about cops shutting down lemonade stands because the kids running them didn’t have permits, and I didn’t think it could get worse than that, but I was wrong. Now we have cops trolling neighborly little help-me-and-I’ll-help-you Facebook groups actually looking for people to prosecute for this kind of thing. “Oooooh, a single mother looking to help her family using her gift for home cooking! I bet I can get her! I’m going to ask her to buy some ceviche and then when she says yes I will have her charged! To protect and serve!”

Seriously? What’s next? Charity bake sales being raided by S.W.A.T. teams? I hope I didn’t just give anyone any ideas.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, McDaniel also told Fox 40 that “food prepared in a facility that does not inspect it creates a risk to the public,” which is just flat-out wrong. It does not present “a risk to the public,” it presents a risk only to the person purchasing and consuming it, and people should have the right to make those kinds of decisions for themselves. After all, people understand that buying food from another individual is not the same as buying food from a restaurant or grocery store. When a person buys a cupcake at a bake sale, he understands that the baker’s oven has in fact not been evaluated by the health department, he’s just down to get a little wild and buy some non-vetted treats anyway. Crazy, I know. We’ve got some real Evel Knievels out there in the ‘burbs!

McDaniel, if you are the type of person who likes to start your family dinner with a government inspection of the food before the prayer, then that’s fine. Do you! But don’t for a second act like employing undercover officers to bust people for selling a home-cooked meal to help feed their own families is a helpful — or even remotely acceptable — use of your department’s resources.

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