Over-Criminalization of Food Sales

November 30, 2016 by

With over 300,000 criminally enforceable rules and regulations on the federal level alone, it is impossible for the average – otherwise law abiding – citizen to go through a day without violating at least one of these rules or regulations. Their broad reach unintentionally over-criminalizes everyday acts. But many of these laws leave a lot of discretion to each case’s prosecutor, which means that there often isn’t a set standard on how punishments are dealt or who they are dealt to.

The California Homemade Food Act, of which Texas has its own version called the Texas Cottage Food Law, has come under fire as California law enforcement is using it to make an example out of one unsuspecting woman.

Texas’ expanded cottage food law took effect in 2013, the same year that California passed their homemade food act. The laws vary in certain areas, but they serve the same purpose: to regulate the sale of homemade food. The laws differ in that California requires anyone interested in selling homemade food to register, while Texas doesn’t require registration but only allows the sale of “non-potentially hazardous” foods.

Mariza Ruelas, a single mother of six living in Stockton, California, was a part of a potluck-like Facebook group called “209 Food Spot.” Members of the group exchanged recipes, organized potlucks, and would sell or exchange food items.

Apparently, even with no criminal intent, the selling or exchanging of food items was criminal enough to cause San Joaquin County investigators to start an undercover investigation into the group lasting for more than a year.

Ruelas joined the group two years ago when she needed a last minute cake for her daughter’s quinceañera. She subsequently began partaking in the group nearly once a month, exchanging rice and beans for cake, or chicken-stuffed avocados as requested, until last July.

In July she received a summons to appear in court, and would later discover that along with about six other group members she was facing two misdemeanor charges of operating a food facility and engaging in business without a permit. The charges stemmed from a sting in October of the previous year when an undercover investigator ordered 32 ounces of ceviche, a popular Latin American seafood dish, for $12 from Ruelas through the group.

Other members of the group were offered a plea deal that consisted of a $235 fine, 40 hours of community service, and a year of probation. Ruelas, on the other hand, was offered 80 hours of community service, three years of probation, and the same amount in fines.

She refused to accept the deal, saying it “was a waste of resources and time and taxpayers’ money,” and she couldn’t be more correct. She is now heading to trial, which will undoubtedly cost taxpayers more because the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office is choosing to pursue a ridiculous charge.

Ruelas requested an attorney and was appointed a public defender, but she also had additional charges filed against her. The prosecutor tacked on a health and safety violation as well as a tax violation, both alleged.

In response to public outrage, Kelly McDaniel, the San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney said that the Facebook group was sent a warning before charges were filed, although none of those charged received direct warnings. She also said that selling food in that manner undercuts business owners and is a danger to the public.

Ruelas said that the group didn’t see any harm in what they were doing and that no one was selling daily. “A lot of time, they were just getting back what they put into the ingredients.”

It’s safe to assume that the legislators who craft cottage food laws don’t intend for them to be used to crack down on single mothers trading food on Facebook. The charges against her are even more ridiculous when you consider it is her first time being found violating the law.

Stockton residents need to question whether prosecuting a single mother selling food on Facebook as a hobby is a good use of their resources in a city that has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the entire State of California.

Ruelas’ trial date is December 2nd and she could face a maximum penalty of two years in prison, although McDaniel said she is not seeking jail time.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.