Bakersfield · Business · COVID-19 · Fresno

Valley prosecutors resist push to prosecute COVID-defiant restaurants

The push by California officials to criminally prosecute restaurateurs, bar owners, and their employees for defying coronavirus orders has – for the most part – failed to launch.

Why? Local prosecutors resistant to penalizing business owners for attempting to make a living.

In September, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp decried the effort by California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control department to prosecute three local restaurants for defying orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In a statement at the time, Smittcamp hit back at perceived hypocrisy from Sacramento coupled with overzealous enforcement by state officials.

“The legislature of the State of California and Governor Newsom continue to create and implement policies that promote the de-criminalization of activities that many in law enforcement consider to be harmful to the health and safety of Californians,” Smittcamp said. “[Y]et they want to make criminals out of people who are trying to make a living, keep their employees working, and attempting to stimulate our local economy while also respecting the health and welfare of our community.”

Now, the same prosecutorial buzzsaw has come for ABC officials, only this time in Kern County.

A report from The Bakersfield Californian finds that ABC submitted nine requests for prosecution to the Kern County District Attorney’s Office.

Only one case, dating back to July, has been adjudicated. It involved Arvin-based Jarritos Y Mariscos Los Juanes Y Mexican Food.

Its penalty? A 15-day suspension of its liquor license, which has been stayed for a year in exchange for full compliance with health guidelines.

The remainder have, thus far, evaded prosecution at the discretion of top local prosecutors. A key reason driver behind it is the target placed by ABC itself.

Often, the agency is unable to dole out penalties directly to licensees and finds itself placing the burden on low-level employees, adding another layer of conflict for District Attorneys.

“If we filed misdemeanor charges against every (alcohol-serving) business, we’d make criminals out of every business owner. A lot of them, anyway,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph A. Kinzel told The Californian.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.