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Of all the illegal things being bought and sold on Facebook, the last thing that we thought would get you in trouble is ceviche. Leaving aside whether or not purchasing raw fish cured in citrus juices over the internet is a wise decision, surely a single mother of six can offer up a delicious homemade dish on a local Facebook forum, no?
No. Not according to San Joaquin County authorities, who completed a year-long undercover sting operation on illicit Facebook food sales by hauling Mariza Ruelas into court to face misdemeanor charges that could wind up in jail time if Ruelas is convicted. Legitimate law enforcement dragnet, or a criminal fishing expedition gone awry? You decide:
As reported by the Washington Post, investigators had been tracking the Facebook community forum 209 Food Spot for a year. Members of the forum shared recipes, organized potlucks, and occasionally sold or exchanged homemade food items like tamales, tortillas, and cakes. The investigation lead to at least half a dozen criminal complaints this past summer, with Ruelas charged with two misdemeanors (operating a food facility and engaging in business without a permit) regarding the sale of ceviche to an undercover officer last year.
Six of the members accepted plea deals requiring a $235 fine and 40 hours of community service, plus one year of probation. Ruelas was offered double the community service and three years of probation, so she decided to fight the case. If convicted, she could go to jail.
Although the Post reported that Ruelas could face up to a year in jail, San Joaquin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams told the Los Angeles Times Ruelas would probably get no "more than 10 days in county jail" if she's convicted. "It's not the big, bad D.A.'s office trying to take this woman down," Adams said. "If one person gets salmonella or E. coli and they die, then we'd be the first person they'd contact to say, 'Why didn't we do anything about this?'"
Adams also alleges that Ruelas continued selling food items via the Facebook group, even after she was charged. Perhaps a jury will be more sympathetic to Ruelas, who described the investigation and her prosecution as a "waste of time and resources and taxpayers' money."