Are you curious about a person, place or thing in your city? Wondering about issues that seem unique to Coachella Valley and want to learn more? Speak up. Desert Sun journalists are here to answer your burning questions. Learn how to submit at the bottom of this story.
Q: Do psychics need a license to tell the future in the Coachella Valley?
Tucked away in strip malls, apartment complexes and unassuming homes across the Coachella Valley, businesses promising supernatural services call to curious customers.
Psychic. Fortuneteller. Centro Mayor Espiritual.
While relatively modest in size, the desert psychic sector hosts a wide range of characters, from classic tarot readers and mediums to a Hispanic spiritualist organization espousing mustard-based spells to bring wealth to your family.
But are these businesses legal? What do desert cities do, if anything, to regulate psychics, mediums and others selling knowledge of the unknowable?
Decades ago, concerns about these professions' propensity to exploit vulnerable people resulted in mandatory psychic permitting processes across California and in a majority of Coachella Valley cities.
But a Desert Sun examination of the local occult industry found most Coachella Valley psychics do not have the required permits. Local cities also appear unconcerned with the violations, with few or no enforcement actions on record for most.
What does the desert psychic sector look like?
Five Coachella Valley cities — Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indio and Coachella — require specific permits for psychics and other occult businesses. These cities report a total of four licensed psychics between them. Yet an online search for such businesses yields websites and Yelp pages for three times that number in the same cities.
The city ordinances covering these activities — most dating from the mid-1980s — mandate permitting processes of varying scope. These range from a relatively simple background check in Palm Desert, to a more lengthy process in Palm Springs, Indio and Cathedral City involving the submission of a five-year employment history and fingerprints on a form provided by local police. The ordinances in these latter cities also stipulate that psychics must pay surety bonds — required "to insure good faith and fair dealing on the part of the applicant" — of $15,000 to the cities, although fees associated with the laws are subject to change and appear to have been reduced since their writing.
Many of these local psychic ordinances are replacements of early-1960s policies that banned such activities outright. After a 1985 California Supreme Court ruling found that such bans were unconstitutional, Coachella Valley cities swapped the bans for permitting ordinances.
Since then, the ordinances appear to have been rarely enforced. Officials in several Coachella Valley cities were unable to locate any records of enforcement action for their psychic laws. The City of Palm Desert reported one enforcement action in the last 30 years, resulting in the relocation of a local psychic business to an area that was properly zoned for the activity.
Palm Desert said its ordinance — with one of the less rigorous permitting processes — was part of basic due diligence to protect consumers in a relatively fraud-prone industry.
"The intention of this code is to prevent individuals who have been charged with deceptive practices from having easy access to those who may be vulnerable to fraud or other illicit practices," wrote Palm Desert spokesperson Ryland Penta in an email. "Regulating certain businesses that have a higher propensity for these types of crimes is a proper exercise to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public."
The city's concerns are not unfounded.
Some psychics — along with religious and spirituality scholars — say times of great uncertainty, such as the current pandemic, can drive up demand for psychic services. Increased demand can create more opportunities for fraud, which was the case in multiple high-profile Southern California psychic scam cases this fall.
In one recent instance, a Riverside fortuneteller made national headlines in late October after being arrested on charges of felony grand theft. According to police, the man utilized a voodoo doll, tarot cards, "religious and satanic-type objects," and a live snake as part of a scam that defrauded a woman out of more than $50,000 amid promises to rid her and her family of a curse. That fortuneteller had previously been arrested and convicted of a similar fraud in Chicago in late 2019.
That same month, a Los Angeles-area psychic made international headlines when she was targeted in a $25,000 fraud lawsuit. The plaintiff in that case said the psychic falsely claimed she could remove a curse put on his marriage by a witch hired by his ex-girlfriend. Despite making an initial $1,000 deposit for the curse-removal service, the plaintiff said his marriage situation did not improve.
Psychic fraud cases such as these have been on the rise since the onset of the pandemic, according to senior advocacy group AARP, as predatory actors look to exploit peoples' heightened sense of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Timothy Courtney, one of two licensed psychics in Palm Springs, argues there's fraudsters in all business sectors but that psychics get singled out as suspect because they aren't selling a physical product or measurable service.
"There are people in any business that (cheat people)," Courtney said.
"We seem to think this one is different because it is intangible," he added. "We don't have a product to hold onto or a house that was finished or unfinished."
Courtney said ethically minded psychics should work to conduct business in a transparent and professional way, clearly posting and adhering to set prices for each service offered so that no one feels they are being pumped for cash. The Palm Springs psychic said he also takes the extra step of never asking for follow-up appointments with his clients.
"In all the years I've done this and the thousands of people I've worked with, I've never told anyone 'You need to come back,'" Courtney said. "You come when you need it."
"I think it's very disrespectful to just 'check-in' on people," he added.
Some local psychics were more blunt about issues of fraud in their industry.
"There's a lot of scammers out there," said "Psychic Billy," a psychic based in Palm Desert who does not have a permit and said he was unaware they were mandatory. Billy, who didn't respond to multiple inquiries about his full name, said he never "pressure(s) people into doing anything whatsoever" and clearly posts prices for all services offered.
The psychic said, however, that he was aware of other local psychics who are "scam artists," including one who had defrauded people of "thousands of dollars."
Another Palm Desert psychic, "Madame Zelda," whose expired Palm Desert psychic license lists the name Gina Merino, said she had been the victim of harassment and vandalism on her Highway 111 storefront before it closed down last year. She suspected another psychic in the city was behind the incidents.
Despite almost universally claiming to run transparent operations, even some of the Coachella Valley's fully licensed psychics were unwilling to disclose their full name to The Desert Sun.
“Sometimes you tell people things they don’t want to hear and they get angry,” said a psychic named Tammy at Mystic Desert psychic and gift shop on North Palm Canyon Drive. “I have one guy who used to come in and spit on my window every day because I told him something he didn’t want to hear.”
“I don't tell any of my clients my last name," she added. "It’s the way I know how to keep my family safe."
Tammy is fully licensed and has operated out of a storefront on North Palm Canyon Drive for more than a decade. She said she got licensed out of a desire to be "legal" and "legit."
"I didn’t want to be one of those readers — because there are a lot of them — that stay (in an area) as long as they can, get what they can get and then they leave," she said.
Courtney, Palm Springs' other licensed psychic, said he has gone to great lengths to adhere to the city's requirements and be transparent about his fees and services.
Raised in a highly religious family in Kentucky, Courtney said he spent years performing psychic services under the table as a side job while living in Los Angeles. When he moved to Palm Springs in 2016 and decided to pursue work as a psychic and medium full time, Courtney said he was determined to follow the rules.
The psychic paid the required surety bond, submitted fingerprints and supplied the city with photos and other documentation, a process he says he undertook "out of respect for the work I do" and for "the city and the people who live here."
"At the time … when I gave my bonding papers to the city, they said, 'You know, you're the only person in this that we have that's done all this work," he recalled. "Everyone else signs up as an entertainer."
"I heard about the entertainment (route) and said 'You know what? I'm not doing that. I'm legit,'" Courtney added. "I want to keep a very, very respectable (business) and I want to follow what the city has to say about it."
That supposed route is a loophole of sorts in Palm Springs, Indio and Cathedral City's ordinances, which contain exemptions for people practicing occult services purely for entertainment or as part of a religious practice. Some unpermitted local psychics claim these entertainment exemptions, although the personal consultations offered by the businesses often conflict with ordinance requirements that all exempt activity be conducted in a public place and that questions are only answered in a way that "all persons present at such public place" can hear the answers.
The religious exemption allows a much greater freedom of activity, although it appears rarely — if ever — used. One unlicensed Palm Springs psychic's website notes that she is an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, an organization known to ordain almost anyone online for a small fee. Individuals claiming this exemption must still file with the city, however, and no religious exemptions to the ordinances have been filed, according to Palm Springs city officials.
Why aren't the psychic laws enforced?
There's no single answer to this question. The most obvious reason is simply that enforcement of the psychic ordinances is a lower priority for cities working with limited resources. And while this is almost certainly a factor, legal experts suggest that other tricky issues may be at work.
If Coachella Valley cities ever did decide to begin strict enforcement of the psychic ordinances, they could run into First Amendment issues, according to Pepperdine University law professor Shelly Saxer.
Saxer said that, while commercial free speech — such as for a paid psychic reading — is generally less protected than individual free speech, religious speech and practice tends to be highly protected and difficult to regulate.
"It makes me think of a case when I was clerking for a federal judge years ago," Saxer said. "It was a husband and wife team who had been prosecuted under state law for prostitution and pandering and they claimed this was their religion and came into federal court."
The woman in that case, Mary Ellen Tracy, claimed she performed sex acts with hundreds of men in the Los Angeles area as part of her duties as the high priestess of the "Church of the Most High Goddess." Men were required to make "sacrifices" —usually monetary payments — to participate in the sexual rituals, which prosecutors argued amounted to thinly disguised prostitution.
Even in that rather extreme case, Saxer said the issue was highly contentious and difficult to resolve. Although the judge eventually decided against Tracy and ruled that the religion was a sham, Saxer said the situation highlights how difficult it could become for a city to prosecute an occult business claiming to operate under the aegis of religious freedom.
Saxer discussed the example of one local business as an illustration of how quickly the line between religious activity and psychic business can become blurred.
Indio's El Hermano Que Cura ("The Brother that Heals" in English) sells tarot and astrological consultations to, among other things, help clients determine compatibility with a romantic partner and improve their sex lives. The business proffers a range of loosely related services, such as spells to attract money using rituals based around mustard seeds.
El Hermano, according to representative Jesus Vera, has been operating in the Coachella Valley for the past seven years. The business' Indio Boulevard storefront is registered as a retail business, according to Indio officials, who said the city was unable to locate any records for a permitted psychic business within its limits.
Vera said in an email that El Hermano provided "spiritual services" which was a "completely broad" concept "because with our experience, freedom of expression, freedom of worship and variety of beliefs we can establish a different procedure in each case to achieve inner and outer healing of any kind of imbalance that exists in our daily routines."
When asked about the psychic permit, Vera said El Hermano was a licensed business and provided its retail business license number.
The suggestion that the psychic ordinance does not apply to El Hermano appears dubious — at least according to the letter of the law. Like most of the local psychic regulations, Indio's ordinance is highly specific and clearly written with the psychic industry's diversity of services in mind. It defines the services requiring a permit as follows:
"(F)orecasting of future events or furnishing of any information not otherwise obtainable by the ordinary process of knowledge, by means of ... clairvoyance, clairaudience, cartomancy, phrenology, spirits, tea leaves or other such reading, mediumship, seership, prophecy, augury, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, mind-reading, telepathy, or other craft, art, science, cards, talisman, charm, potion, magnetism, magnetized article or substance, crystal gazing, oriental mysteries or magic of any kind or nature or other similar means or act."
Saxer said the specificity of Indio's ordinance leaves little wiggle room and clearly fits the definition of El Hermano's business activities.
Despite this, she said it could be difficult for the city to enforce the psychic ordinance against El Hermano — particularly if the business leaned into a religious freedom defense. Like Palm Springs and Cathedral City's ordinances, Indio's psychic regulations contain an exception for religious practices. Businesses wishing to claim the exemption must file with the city and must be a "bona fide church or religious association maintaining a church and holding regular services and having a creed or set of religious principles that is recognized by all churches of like faith," according to the ordinance.
"When you say things like it's a bona fide church or religious organization, that gets really tough to declare that something is not a religion," Saxer said. "If you're talking about spiritual counseling, you're on that line of religious use that then gets more protection under the First Amendment."
The majority opinion in the 1985 state Supreme Court case that led to the psychic permitting ordinances hints at the mushy distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate psychic business. According to the opinion, if the person does not actually believe in their own ability to deliver what they promise with their occult powers, then they are engaged in fraud. The ruling reasoned, however, that if someone truly believed in the truth of their predictions, then they were acting legitimately.
"When such persons impart their beliefs to others, they are not acting fraudulently; they are communicating opinions which, however dubious, are unquestionably protected by the Constitution," wrote Justice Stanley Mosk in the 1985 opinion.
Saxer noted that most of these thorny issues would likely only come into play if a city decided to deny a psychic a permit or deny someone a religious exemption to the permitting process.
"But I can understand cities being nervous about trying to enforce these" ordinances, she said, "because there are problems with them."
The Pepperdine law professor suggested that these issues, in part, may contribute to Coachella Valley cities' lack of enforcement of the psychic ordinances.
Such rarely enforced laws are common across America. Termed "dead crimes" by some legal scholars, the offenses can range from swearing or spitting on the street to providing massage services to clients of the opposite sex or having sex while unmarried — still technically a crime in some states.
Some experts, such as lawyer and legal scholar Joel Johnson, argue that the existence of dead laws can undermine the rule of law by allowing for arbitrary enforcement. In the case of the psychic ordinances, this could mean an official acting in bad faith could target a specific psychic business for enforcement for reasons unrelated to protecting public welfare.
Saxer, however, argued that the psychic ordinances could have some legitimate utility even if they are largely ignored now. In the event that a large psychic sector began to emerge in the Coachella Valley, she reasoned, a city could use broad enforcement of the psychic ordinances to clean up the local industry and reduce the risk of fraud.
"If you have this (law) on the books, then at that point you might start enforcing it against everyone," Saxer said, "because (then) you're addressing an issue where there are multiple people who are complying but there are a lot of people who are not getting the permits."
How far back does this go and why do people seek psychics?
Diane Winston, a religion and spirituality scholar at USC, said the debate about what, if anything, constitutes a "legitimate" psychic business goes back to the foundation of the practice in America.
She pointed to the rise of the spiritualist movement in the mid-19th century as the genesis of many prevalent psychic and occult-related beliefs.
"People who say they communicate with the dead have been around forever," Winston said. "But it became an important phenomenon in America in the 1840s when two sisters in New York claimed that they had heard tapping, which they interpreted to be ghosts."
The two sisters were later joined by their third sibling to form the now-famous Fox sisters trio, who played a key role in launching the spiritualist movement, which drew millions of American followers at its height.
Margaretta Fox said in the late 1880s, however, that the entire ghost-tapping incident had begun as a joke and provided details and demonstrations of how the sisters had tricked audiences in subsequent performances.
Despite this blow, Winston said that belief in spiritualism continued on, feeding into many of the psychic practices still present today.
In the latter half of the 19th century, she explained, rapid societal change and calamities such as the Civil War drove people to seek comfort and a sense of control in the information provided by spiritualists. Winston said the same desire for control and predictability amid crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic might underlie the ongoing demand for psychic services today.
"Any time there’s uncertainty in the world, people want to know they’re going to be OK," said Tammy of Mystic Desert.
The psychic reported seeing bumps in business during both the Great Recession a decade ago and during the early days of the COVID pandemic.
"When the pandemic hit, people needed some reassurance," Tammy said. "This is somebody telling them that everything is going to be OK — or not — so they could prepare."
She said this influx of early-pandemic clients asked for phone readings around typical questions like financial and job security, as well as some unique lockdown-era inquiries.
"(Some were asking) how they're going to cope with their husband since they're going to be (cooped up) with them for so long," she said.
Winston said that, at their best, the services provided by psychics can have parallels to those provided by therapists — although she noted she was hesitant to draw too strong of a line between the two.
"A therapist uses the past to help you gain insights into where you are now or else helps you think about your present situation in ways that may help you feel freer about the burdens you carry," Winston said.
"I think that there are psychics and there were spiritualists that had that same motivation," she said. "They wanted to be able to help people put down their burdens and see life more clearly and be able to enjoy their life."
Many of the processes described by aforementioned Palm Springs psychic Courtney seem to align with this therapeutic function.
"I love the word 'encourage,'" Courtney said. "I don't tell (clients) what do to. I would always say, 'I would like to encourage you to see the doctor about what I see going on in your head,' or 'I would like to encourage you to follow through with what's come in today' because solutions always come."
Many clients come to psychics and mediums seeking peace of mind or reassurance, which sometimes comes in the form of a "sign" from someone they love. In one instance, Courtney described seeing a sunrise during a reading with the mother of a stillborn baby and telling her that baby wanted her to know he saw it when he died.
"She cried and cried," Courtney said. "She said, 'What you don't know is that ever since we found out we were pregnant with (the baby), we have taken him outside every morning to watch the sunrise.'"
"That was super powerful for the mom," he added.
Desert Sun East Valley reporter Eliana Perez contributed to this report. James B. Cutchin covers business in the Coachella Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.
How Ask The Desert Sun works
Participate by sending your questions:
Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org using Ask The Desert Sun in the subject line.
On Twitter, use the hashtag #AskTheDesertSun or tag the newspaper @MyDesert
Post a message on The Desert Sun Facebook page.
If you appreciate journalism that is directly shaped by what the community wants to know, please consider a subscription and support the work done by local journalists in the Coachella Valley.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Ask The Desert Sun: Do psychics in the Palm Springs area need license?