Mariza Ruelas’ homemade dishes gained a small following among friends and family on the 209 Food Spot on Facebook, a community of thousands of Northern Californians who share recipes, cooking tips and occasionally swap dishes for favors or other meals.
Ruelas was especially proud of her ceviche, a Latin American dish of citrus-marinated raw fish or other seafood served cold.
So when she had leftovers in December, the 37-year-old single unemployed mother of six posted a photo of it on Facebook and offered group members a plate; her price was $12 for 32 ounces.
One man took her up on the offer and drove to Ruelas’ Stockton home, paid her cash and left with his meal.
But that man turned out to be an undercover investigator, and soon Ruelas got a letter in July from the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office.
The ceviche purchase was part of a sting and the letter informed Ruelas that she was one of several people who were charged with misdemeanors for operating a food facility and a business without a license.
When the group of mostly women she saw showed up in court, Ruelas said, prospective plea agreements awaited them, ready to be signed.
Most of the offers gave the defendants a year of probation, 40 hours of community service and $250 in fines. But Ruelas said hers was different – she was offered three years’ probation and 80 hours of community service. She said it was her punishment for refusing to take down her posts about the ceviche incident from social media.
Ruelas thought that was unjust, so she refused to sign the plea agreement.
Instead of changing their deal, court records show, prosecutors instead attempted to add two more misdemeanor charges to Ruelas’ case, pending a ruling from a judge later this week. If that happens, she could conceivably face two years of jail time — though it’s unclear how realistic such a sentence would be.
“This amendment came after she asserted her right to a trial,” noted Ruelas’ public defender, Benjamin Hall.
Hall declined to speculate on why Deputy Dist. Atty. Kelly McDaniel was adding additional counts, but said that prosecuting his client goes against the spirit of the law’s intent.
“Obviously there needs to be food safety. On the other hand, this is not the kind of thing these laws were meant to go after. They were intended for people who build restaurants and don’t obtain permits,” Hall said. “And it’s not that situation. It’s a community of people joined by food.”
McDaniel was unavailable for comment Monday, but defended the case to KTXL-TV in an interview last week.
“I don’t write the laws, I enforce them and the Legislature has felt that this is a crime,” she said. “Food prepared in a facility that has not been inspected creates a risk to the public.”
Ruelas defended herself on Facebook, writing “I gave the same food away that I fed to my family never would I bring them any harm.”
“This is something I did at most twice a month,” she told the Times. “Like I told everybody else, I’m by myself. My kids go to four different schools. This group was helpful for me. For those days where my mom has dialysis, you can say ‘is anyone willing to trade? I’ll get you this weekend.”
Ruelas said she is willing to pay a fine.
“I just don’t want a record,” she said.
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2:32 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Mariza Ruelas and her public defender.
This article was originally published at 10:15 a.m.