May 14, 2020
When Merita Kraya escaped communism in Albania 30 years ago, she never imagined she would be facing criminal charges for legally operating her business in the United States. Yet when law enforcement received political pressure from the small town of Fountain Hills, Arizona, that is precisely what happened to her.
Merita immigrated to the United States three decades ago as a political refugee. Soon after, she received her citizenship, and like so many new Americans, she built her American dream by starting a small business.
She has operated one such business, Euro Pizza Cafe, in Fountain Hills for more than 20 years. Euro Pizza is a popular restaurant in the town of 20,000, and Merita is a well-known and respected small business leader in the community.
Shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus, Governor Doug Ducey imposed an executive order that limited the operations of restaurants to only take-out service. After that order was issued, Merita scrupulously complied with its terms. She immediately closed dine-in services and blocked all entrances to her indoor dining room. She also closed her open-air patio by placing tables and chairs to block entrance. She continued to offer takeout service, as the order permitted.
But because Euro Pizza faces a large plaza and park, several customers would purchase takeout from the restaurant and sit to eat it nearby. Some customers sat at tables adjacent to Merita’s restaurant, including tables that belonged to other businesses or that were in a common area that was not on restaurant property.
Merita had signage posted on the patio that directed all customers to see the hostess for patio seating, and she placed new signage on seating areas intended for customers awaiting takeout that specifically said that no food or alcohol was to be consumed.
Despite these measures, and despite Merita’s compliance with the law, local leaders from Fountain Hills directed law enforcement officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to show up at her business on a regular basis. The officers made multiple demands that did not appear to be supported by the Governor’s order. When Merita complied with all of them, the demands would change. Merita kept up with the ever-changing enforcement of the order. This apparently was not good enough for local leaders who wanted to make an example of her business.
Although Merita scrupulously complied with the law and the many permutations of its enforcement, after multiple visits to her restaurant, Merita was issued a criminal citation for allegedly violating the executive order.
This was one of only a handful of citations issued under the order throughout the entire state of Arizona. It was not issued to a restaurant ignoring the law and offering dine-in service. It was not issued to a bar that continued to serve customers. And it was not issued to an event space that refused to shut its doors to large gatherings. Instead, this citation was issued to a law-abiding citizen who was operating her business in compliance with the law.
Merita intends to fight this unjust application of the order. She is represented by Douglas Schumacher, an experienced attorney in Fountain Hills.
Fortunately, the Goldwater Institute was able to connect Merita with an attorney through its American Freedom Network. Formally established in 2017, the American Freedom Network is a nationwide pro bono network of attorneys who lend their skills, expertise, and interests to the Goldwater Institute’s effort to defend freedom. At present, more than 320 attorneys are a part of the American Freedom Network, with a presence in 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Goldwater is fortunate to count Marc Victor, founder of The Attorneys For Freedom Law Firm in Chandler, Arizona, among its American Freedom Network attorneys. Marc is a strong and experienced criminal defense attorney and a strong advocate for freedom.
“Whatever one thinks of the orders, there is no question that the law should be fairly and equitably enforced. That does not appear to have happened here,” said Victor. “We intend to litigate this issue as far as necessary to get justice for Merita.”
“Merita did not expect that lawfully operating a business in the land of the free would lead to a criminal citation,” said Goldwater Institute Director of National Litigation Jon Riches. “Thanks to attorneys giving their time and talent to the cause of liberty, this is the latest example of the American Freedom Network making an enormous difference in the protection of individual rights.”