Prosecutors drop COVID-19 case against former SLOPD officer defended by Cunningham

Kurt Hixenbaugh

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has dropped its criminal case against a former San Luis Obispo police sergeant whom prosecutors accused of violating coronavirus health orders by operating his wine bar in Orcutt.

Kurt Hixenbaugh, who served on the San Luis Obispo force for more than a decade and as recently as 2018, co-owns and operates Vino et Amicis in Old Town Orcutt. During the recent statewide stay-at-home order issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Hixenbaugh refused to shut down Vino et Amicis. 

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo), who is a practicing attorney, had been defending Hixenbaugh in court. Both Hixenbaugh and Cunningham have been outspoken critics of Newsom’s coronavirus orders. 

In March, prosecutors charged Hixenbaugh with four misdemeanors. The charges consisted of two counts of failing to obey a stay-at-home order and two counts of failing to file a public health report. 

On Tuesday, Hixenbaugh made a court appearance via Zoom. During the hearing, the prosecution said it would drop the charges against Hixenbaugh. 

The district attorney’s office says it decided to drop the charges because Hixenbaugh’s business did not commit any new violations, and the coronavirus restrictions, upon which the case was based, were lifted on Tuesday.

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham

Cunningham had argued, by keeping his business open, Hixenbaugh was protesting Newsom’s stay-at-home order, which the bar owner believed was illegal and unconstitutional. Hence, Hixenbaugh had First Amendment protection for continuing to operate his business, Cunningham stated.

Prosecutors filed the criminal complaint against Hixenbaugh after the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) conducted an investigation into the wine bar. ABC fined Vino et Amicis an undisclosed amount for COVD-19 rules violations, but decided not to revoke the business’s alcohol license. 

Hixenbaugh was the first person to face criminal charges in Santa Barbara County for violating coronavirus orders. Santa Barbara County authorities had previously filed civil cases against gyms that refused to close down when ordered to do so.

If Hixenbaugh had been convicted of the misdemeanors, he would have faced up to six months in county jail and/or a $1,000 fine for each of the charges. 

Beginning late last year, Hixenbaugh posted multiple videos on YouTube announcing his wine bar was defying Gov. Newsom’s shutdown order and encouraging other businesses to do the same. 

Hixenbaugh took issue with Newsom including San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in the Southern California region. He also argued that businesses following coronavirus reopening protocols, like operating at partial capacity and requiring masks and social distancing, was enough and that there was not justification for shutting down bars and restaurants. 

In a video posted on Feb. 10, Hixenbaugh announced he was changing the name of a beer served at Vino et Amicis from “F-Covid” to “Definance.” 

“Come on down and have a glass of defiance. Freedom’s delicious,” Hixenbaugh said in the video.

 

Hixenbaugh went on to encourage other business owners to be smart and safe and follow pre-pandemic laws, but to defy Newsom’s shutdown order.

After prosecutors charged Hixenbaugh, a GoFundMe was launched as a legal defense fund for him. The GoFundMe raised more than $10,000.

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