Non-Essential Businesses in Los Angeles Will Face Criminal Charges During the Coronavirus Crisis

Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

Are you running a non-essential business in Los Angeles that’s been ordered to shut down during the coronavirus crisis? With Mayor Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” emergency order, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that the City Attorney of Los Angeles is filing misdemeanor charges against four businesses that refused to close. These businesses are a shoe store, a smoke shop and two discount electronic stores.

In the Times article, City Attorney Mike Feuer says, “[t]he mayor’s order is clear: only essential businesses, such as healthcare providers, organizations serving vulnerable populations and grocery stores, may remain open during the COVID-19 emergency.” Feuer also said, “We’re all safer at home. Nonessential businesses remaining open at this time jeopardize public health and safety, and my office is committed to vigorously enforcing the mayor’s order.”

The punishment for operating a non-essential business during the lockdown in Los Angeles is a misdemeanor conviction and likely hefty fines. You could also jeopardize any relevant operating permits your business requires. If charges are filed against an individual owner of a business in his or her personal capacity, then the individual would be personally responsible to pay any fines or serve any jail time (look, although technically possible, jail time is unlikely unless the conduct is particularly egregious such as repeated violations, things like that).

Of course, if you have a non-essential business you shouldn’t be operating it during the California COVID-19 state emergency. You know that. You may be taking a risk hoping you don’t get caught. Putting aside whether this is a responsible thing to do during the coronavirus crisis, let’s get to the brass tacks of how to deal with it if you get a call or a visit from the City Attorney’s Office.

Mayor Garcetti announced that business that are suspected of non-compliance will receive a phone call from a “Safer at Home Ambassador” encouraging the owner to suspend operations for the duration of the mayor’s order. If you get a call from one of these “Ambassadors”, you need to remember that you’re not talking to some random concerned citizen. You are talking to an LA City prosecutor. This person can file charges against you. Remember, all the usual rules apply. Remain silent. Do not admit anything and do not deny anything. Take a phone number of the person calling you. Call an attorney.

The City can also order that water and power be shut off to your business in the event of non-compliance with the mayor’s order. You may think this is unfair or lacks due process. You’re right. It does. But the reality is that in an emergency, especially a pandemic, the mayor has broad authority to issue these sorts of orders.

Bottom line: If you own a business that you believe is being targeted for illegally operating in the city of Los Angeles during the COVID-19 crisis, you can contact my office at (323) 633-3423 or via the secure contact form on this page for a confidential initial consultation.

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