If you want to sell ceviche, your recipe better include a permit.
That’s the message the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office wants to send in its prosecution of Mariza Ruelas, the Stockton mother facing four misdemeanor charges related to selling homemade ceviche through a Facebook group.
Ruelas and her public defender appeared in court Wednesday morning. The D.A.’s office offered a plea deal that would have given Ruelas 80 hours of community service – an offer that Ruelas turned down.
“None of us. The other ladies as well, none of them should have had a misdemeanor on their record for any amount of time,” Ruelas said, explaining her decision after leaving the courtroom. Several other food-sellers facing the same charges accepted plea deals.
A handful of protesters showed up to support Ruelas and raise questions about the D.A.’s decision to prosecute.
“We understand. We don’t dispute the legality. Our argument is the priorities. We’ve got unsolved murders. We’ve got a high crime rate – a violent crime rate that is on the increase, not the decrease,” supporter Motecuzoma Sanchez said. “And we feel it’s a major misuse of resources. We feel it’s ridiculous and the charges should be dropped.”
Supervising Deputy D.A. Robert Himelblau said it’s not a question of either prosecuting illegal food sales or homicides.
“We go after violent crime. It’s not just not a waste of resources – we have a dedicated unit,” Himelblau said. “We have dedicated units to address some of the things that not only the state citizens care about, but the county citizens care about.”
Himelblau also suggested that this will serve as a lesson to other people considering selling food online, given the risk of food-borne illnesses.
“We need to go out and prevent this type of activity in the way the tools have been given to us. So we don’t have to bring this case to my unit, which is a homicide unit, and have to deal with involuntary manslaughter,” Himelblau said. He added that he wouldn’t want to have to explain to a family that they knew the food sales had been an issue and didn’t do anything about it.
However, it’s not always illegal to sell food made in a home kitchen in California. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a cottage food operations bill. Cottage food operators can prepare, package and sell foods that are on an approved food list, if they go through a training course and implement necessary sanitary rules.
Ruelas will be back in court on Dec. 2.