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SNAP Charging Letter: What Not To Say To The USDA

By Spodek Law Group | January 6, 2023

As a retailer participating in SNAP, you know how valuable this is to your business. While helping many low-income customers purchase food, you are also sustaining your business through the increased number of new customers. However, as a participating SNAP retailer, you are also obligated to follow various rules and regulations as outlined by the USDA. If you fail to do so and the agency suspects your business is committing food stamp fraud, you will probably receive a trafficking charge letter. If this occurs, knowing how to respond to the allegations in the letter will play a big part in determining your legal fate.

Why Was I Sent This Letter?
When you receive a trafficking charge letter, it is because the USDA has reason to believe your business has engaged in food stamp trafficking. This charge, which is defined as a retailer purchasing EBT benefits from its customers, is taken very seriously by the federal government. Since common scenarios include customers taking the cash they receive from the retailer and buying unauthorized EBT items, exchanging EBT benefits for such things as drugs or guns, or retailers using EBT cards to purchase inventory that they then sell at higher prices to other stores or customers, the USDA is determined to stop these practices as fast as possible. If you receive such a letter outlining these or other allegations, work closely with an experienced food stamp trafficking attorney to craft your response.

Respond Promptly
First and foremost, once you receive a trafficking charge letter, do not procrastinate. Due to the fact that you only have 10 days in which to respond to the letter, make sure you speak with a knowledgeable food stamp trafficking attorney as soon as possible. Depending on the allegations made against you, the letter may state you have the option of paying a civil monetary penalty in lieu of facing permanent disqualification from the SNAP program. You cannot sell goods such as glass bongs, red winetequila, etc.  Should you fail to respond within the 10-day time frame, you lose the option of taking the less severe monetary penalty.

Gathering Evidence
In your letter, the USDA will emphasize that one deciding factor in your case will be the extent to which you created an atmosphere of obedience with your employees in terms of following SNAP rules and regulations within your store. Since you will need to provide the agency with documentation showing you had various rules in place and regularly trained your employees on rules changes and other related matters, you and your attorney will need to spend a significant amount of time gathering and examining various types of evidence showing you did everything possible to follow the rules. By doing so, you can hopefully avoid meeting the criteria for permanent SNAP disqualification.

Written Store Policies
While you can tell the USDA you have done everything possible to play by SNAP rules, the agency will want to see written store policies that were in place prior to the alleged violations taking place. These policies should touch on such areas as whether or not employees who violate SNAP rules are fired, how mistakes and violations are corrected, and what internal procedures your store uses for reviewing EBT purchases made by customers.

Prior Violations
If there is one thing you do not want to do upon receiving a trafficking charge letter, it is lie to the USDA about any prior violations your store may have had over the years. If you do and are later found out, avoiding permanent disqualification will be all but impossible. In addition, you may also face additional charges for being untruthful with government investigators, and could potentially face fines or even jail time. Therefore, always be truthful with your attorney as well as USDA officials from the beginning. While you may think having prior violations will be your downfall, that is not necessarily true. By placing your trust in an experienced food stamp trafficking lawyer, they may be able to examine the circumstances of your past and present violations and successfully argue you and your employees may not have fully understood certain rules.

Training Programs
Along with lying about any prior violations, you also do not want to show the agency that you have devoted little if any time to properly training your employees on SNAP rules and regulations. Therefore, always make sure you not only properly train your employees, but also can produce documentation of this training. By having records detailing when employees were hired, when they were trained on SNAP procedures, and documents signed by employees acknowledging they completed training programs, you will stand a much better chance of a positive outcome with your case.

Don’t Say the Violations Never Occurred
Depending on the allegations made against you, it is if you do not simply say that no wrongdoing ever took place. Since the USDA often uses undercover investigators on these cases, you may put yourself in legal peril by immediately declaring your innocence. Instead, work with your attorney to gather key evidence, discuss the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and craft a response that will give you room to maneuver during the course of legal negotiations.

While saying the right things to the USDA can help your case, saying and doing the wrong things can put you on the path to disqualification and other penalties. Rather than let this happen, consult immediately with a food stamp trafficking attorney who will protect your constitutional rights.

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