Whatever happened to the Rawesome Three (James Stewart, Sharon Palmer, Victoria Bloch)?

Whatever happened to the felony case against the Rawesome Three?

Whatever happened to Rawesome Food Club?

The door is locked and a protest sign adorns Rawesome Food Club in Venice, CA. We know the answer to the third question–just take a look at the photo I snapped in the Venice section of Los Angeles today. The tiny Rawesome Food Club remains locked up tight, adorned by a large sign of protest.

The judge overseeing the case in Los Angeles County Criminal Court, Upinder Kalra, seemed to be wondering about the first two questions at a hearing today on the case. The hearing was ostensibly about setting a date for a pretrial hearing, at which a judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.

“We need to proceed on probable cause,” Kalra told the assembled defendants and the lawyers from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

But there were technicalities to work out. James Stewart, the owner of Rawesome, had previously decided to represent himself in the case, and today filed a motion to withdraw his not-guilty plea, under which he agreed to not have anything to do with raw milk or the Rawesome club. “I was unaware of my constitutional rights” when he made the plea, Stewart told the judge.

The judge told Stewart he needed more specific reasons, related to the evidence in the case. But since Stewart hasn’t seen the “discovery”–the state’s evidence–because it was in the hands of his original attorney, the judge ordered the L.A. County District Attorney’s office to ensure he receives the information by Feb. 8.

Moreover, according to an L.A. County District Attorney lawyer at the hearing, his office is still awaiting information from other agencies to possibly add to its evidence in the case. A lawyer for one of the Rawesome Three said he had been told the D.A. was seeking information from other agencies to determine if additional charges might be added to the 13, mostly related to sale of raw milk, originally listed.

The judge agreed to put off until March 2 setting a date for a pretrial hearing, which is then supposed to happen within 45 days. The two sides at the hearing present highlights of their expected evidence, in an effort to convince the judge as to whether the case should go forward to trial, go forward with reduced or added charges, or be thrown out.

After today’s hearing, I spoke with George Castello, a Deputy District Attorney for the L.A. County D.A.’s Consumer Protection Division. He downplayed the potential importance of reports from other agencies. “There are additional reports likely to come in,” he said. But he indicated that not only was he unaware of which agencies might still be submitting reports, but that  “it is not accurate to say more charges might be coming.”

Castello indicated that he is still familiarizing himself with the case, having assumed oversight of the case when Kelly Sakir, a deputy district attorney who oversaw the case from the beginning, was transferred to other duties. “This whole thing is going to get sorted out in a couple of weeks. We’ll see where we are at in mid-February.”

Matt Bromund, an attorney representing Sharon Palmer, said afterwardsthat the simple fact that the authorities who raided Rawesome June 30, 2010, and again August 3, 2011, seized and destroyed practically all the food with “no discrimination,” indicates to him that, “The goal was to shut down the business…This case is not your ordinary criminal case.”

Maybe the clearest thing to come out of the latest legal twists and turns in this case is that the Rawesome Three are well entangled in the jungle that is America’s criminal justice system–a system based heavily on delays, continuances, and long waits. Nearly six months have gone by since the Rawesome Three were arrested, charged with the first felonies in a raw dairy case in recent years, and briefly jailed…and there isn’t even a pre-trial hearing scheduled. Perhaps tangling them up in that thicket was part of the intent here?

A federal judge shot down a long-shot attempt to gain a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s enforcement of the prohibition on interstate raw milk shipments. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund had made the request based on the FDA’s enforcement of the interstate prohibition against two Amish farmers.

Judge Mark Bennett said the FTCLDF’s effort to connect the separate cases against the Amish farmers with the cases of the plaintiffs in the organization’s existing case against the FDA wasn’t convincing to him. “The FDA would be unduly hampered, and the public interest would be damaged, by enjoining enforcement of still-valid regulations intended to protect the public from food borne illnesses resulting from the consumption of raw milk…The plaintiffs have shown no threat to them that would outweigh the threat to the agency’s legitimate enforcement actions and the public interest. I find that the lack of any threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs here and the balance of the other factors against issuance of the requested preliminary injunction make it unnecessary for me to consider the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits of their claims.”

He said the FTCLDF case against the FDA is “a matter of some complexity that will be addressed” at some point upcoming. Stay tuned.