The man peddling fruit and roses at a busy intersection may want to obtain the proper county permits -- if he wants to avoid the hassle of being cited by law enforcement.
The Merced County Sheriff's Department on Friday began "Operation Fruitbasket," a sweep targeting fruit vendors throughout the county who are illegally selling fruit and other items. Most of the vendors are a common sight on roadsides and intersections with high concentrations of vehicle traffic.
Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said enforcement efforts targeting the illegal vendors also happened in the weeks before Friday's sweep.
About 10 deputies with the sheriff STAR Team and AG/STAR Team, in addition to the sheriff's helicopter, participated in Friday's operation, citing two vendors for operating without a permit and confiscating about $1,500 worth of goods.
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The cost of a vendor permit in Merced County is about $84 a year -- but a citation can be triple that amount, according to Eva Yang, a county environmental health specialist.
While some may view illegal fruit vending as an innocuous way to make an easy buck, Sheriff Mark Pazin said there can be serious criminal aspects to the practice. Pazin said some of the fruit is obtained by a practice called "gunny-sacking," where a crew of people will enter a field or orchard and steal the fruit. The stolen fruit is later sold to unsuspecting passersby.
"We don't know where these commodities are coming from, who's putting it together, or whether they are stealing it at night to be sold during the daytime," Pazin said. "We need to be sure that everybody is on the same playing field."
Pazin said there have also been cases where small children are in areas with heavy traffic, which poses an obvious safety risk. He also pointed out there's no guarantees the food is safe to eat, or what kinds of pesticides might have been used.
Apolinar Flores-Rojas, 31, was one of the people who received a citation during Friday's operation. A Mexican citizen, Flores-Rojas pulled up his van to a roadside at Highway 59 and 16th Street. He was preparing to unload watermelons, coconuts and buckets filled with roses to sell when deputies rolled up behind him.
Flores-Rojas broke into tears after being issued a citation, saying he'd like to get the proper permits, but doesn't have the proper legal identification. Flores-Rojas said he obtained about $600 in fruits and merchandise from someone in Los Angeles -- and was hoping to sell the goods in order to feed his family. "I go places to sell and they take everything -- money that I don't have," Flores wept.
Flores-Rojas also explained he's tried to obtain work in the fields, but he only works for a few hours, which isn't enough to make ends meet.
Not all the vendors who were approached by deputies on Friday, however, were out of compliance.
Esperanza Jimenez, who operates a fruit stand on Highway 140 and Arboleda Drive, proudly displayed her county vendor license as deputies approached. Jimenez also displayed a sticker issued by the county, placed in the corner of her van's windshield. "These people are in complete compliance," said Detective Aaron McKnight, looking over Jimenez's paperwork. "This is what we want to see from everyone."
In the meantime, Flores-Rojas said his future isn't so certain. "I don't know what I can do here in the U.S.," he said.
For information about vendor licenses, call the Merced County Department of Environmental Health at (209) 381-1100.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.