Mom Faces Jail Time Over Selling Ceviche in Facebook Group Sting

Ceviche is a popular Latin American dish often made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and served cold.

A single mother of six in California says she could go to jail for selling homemade ceviche through a Facebook group.

"Why don't they go get the people selling drugs on Facebook groups – not food?" Mariza Ruelas said in a phone interview with NBC4.

Prosecutors say, however, that Stockton resident Mariza Ruelas did not have the proper business permits required of restaurants that protect people from eating food prepared in unsanitary kitchens.

Ruelas was cited with two misdemeanor counts after participating in the online forum called "209 Food Spot" — a group for members to trade recipes and sell their specialty dishes.

Ruelas said she had been a member for two years when she received a letter that would change her life. 

She had mostly traded food items -- her tortas, or most in-demand item, chicken stuffed fried avocados -- for any type of baked goods.

"I cannot bake a cupcake to save my life," Ruelas said. "There are some really talented bakers in there. I will no longer buy cookies or cupcakes from the store."

The problem came over an order of ceviche, a popular Latin American seafood dish make from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and served cold.

Ruelas unwittingly sold a $12 plate to an investigator in a sting operation, and that's when the complications began.

Other members in the group also received letters in the mail from the district attorney. Eventually after a few court dates, the others took a plea deal.

But Ruelas refused. She said her deal was more severe than the others. Her defender told her they were trying to "bully her."

The plea deal with prosecutors she refused to accept three years probation, 80 hours community service, a $235 fine and to plead guilty to one misdemeanor. She now plans to fight the case in trial.

"Stockton is really bad -- there are hundreds of unsolved murders," Ruelas said. "I feel like if they're conducting an investigation -- doing a sting – that a better use would be park at the corner and catch the drug dealers selling to kids. Investigate the sex trafficking going on around here with minors. But they would waste their time, investing over a year on this."

Ruelas is raising money through the website, but it has since been suspended for unknown reasons. She said on the website that she never thought that a weekend hobby she enjoyed with her daughters would end badly.

San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Kelly McDaniel said that the home-based enterprise went well beyond a hobby. She added that thousands of people each year across the nation are sickened and die from food borne illnesses.

People like Ruelas also undercut restaurant owners who obtain the proper permits, the prosecutor said.

"It's not unreasonable to be enforcing this type of law," McDaniel told The Associated Press. "When it can cause death, it's our responsibility to enforce laws that protect the public."

The support Ruelas has received via social media has been overwhelmingly positive, with most people commenting in support of her. 

Ruelas is not trying to think about the worst case scenario -- if she were to get sent to jail. She has the support of her brother, and mother, to help with her children. But she says her mother gets tired easily. Her oldest daughter, 17, is so distraught about the situation, she leaves the room if Ruelas has an interview. 

"There's only so much my mom can do," Ruelas said. "That's a lot for any teen or my mom."

She said her next court appearance is Wednesday, and protesters are expected to gather in support.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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