A SNAP Violation Charge Letter arrives in the mail from the USDA looking like a simple, innocuous delivery brought to you like any normal UPS letter package. Don’t be misled. This letter contains either very serious allegations following an in store visit by a department agent, or a compilation of what the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) classified as “suspicious transactions” completed on your store’s register. At first glance, it is not terribly unique from letters that other government agencies and departments send people. The reality is, nevertheless, that this is a completely different process and mindset on the part of the USDA.
The USDA’s Desire is to Shut Down Your Grocery Store or Market
In a 2013 study carried out by the USDA, the department discovered that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) fraud was at a twenty-year high. To combat this problem, the Department stepped up its fraud detection and prevention procedures using a two pronged approach. (1) they bumped up the number of undercover investigations they do every year and (2) they more commonly utilize their ALERT system. If a SNAP Violation charge letter showed up with documented descriptions of transactions that were carried out at your place of business, this signifies that the store has been shopped by one of their undercover agents. If your SNAP Violation charge letter simply included a list of transactions, then the Department utilized its remote ALERT system to indicate the infractions.
No matter the circumstances of how your case was launched, the USDA has espoused a “zero tolerance” policy against fraud and it proceeded to permanently disqualify as many grocers as it could root out. Congress supported the Department’s position. As a result, it is mandated by law that the USDA crack down on SNAP violators. Therefore, the Department is constantly on the lookout to disqualify and suspend as many grocery store licenses as possible.
A Better Understanding of the SNAP Charge Letter
Business owners get their SNAP charge letters through UPS overnight delivery. The charge letter itself is a simple form letter. It describes details on page one of the letter including what charges are being brought against the owner of the store. The letter will list the specifics of the disqualification the United States Department of Agriculture is dedicated to pursuing. Such SNAP violation charges can fall under any of the following types of cases:
SNAP Benefits Trafficking
Trafficking is essentially defined as the act of exchanging SNAP benefits for cash, weapons, or drugs. Of critical importance is that this category does not cover the sale and purchase of ineligible items. There are attorneys in the field that say they specialize in SNAP law and are nonetheless oblivious of the difference, but it is rather important. There are two categories of trafficking cases. One kind is a data or EBT SNAP violation case. These cases include details of transactions but no specific descriptions. The second is a witnessed trafficking, which comes with its specific transaction descriptions. The usual verdict in a trafficking case is permanent disqualification.
Sale of Ineligible Products
This category of charges involves a retail store taking SNAP benefits as payments in exchange for items recipients are not allowed to purchase with EBT funds. Under normal circumstances, these ineligible items include items such as soap, plastic cutlery and sandwich bags. More egregious violations involve such items as gasoline, tobacco or alcohol. Term disqualification is the customary sanction the USDA seeks in these sorts of cases. For more innocuous ineligible products, the Department often attempts to levy a six (6) month disqualification during which the retailer cannot serve their SNAP customers. Those store owners with more serious cases often wind up with three-to-five (3-5) year disqualifications.
If you have been disqualified from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (also called WIC), this can lead to a disqualification from the SNAP benefits program. In such cases, the USDA normally looks to disqualify your grocery store for three (3) years, or they may even hit you with a permanent disqualification.
SNAP Charge Letter
Things You Should NOT Say to the USDA
We are equipped to deal with SNAP Violation charge letters that put forth a list of transactions and allege SNAP trafficking. Quickly calling the USDA may seem like a wise step, but it is, in fact, a very risky move. Even though it is usually wise when you receive such a letter in the mail for you to call up the state agency to ask questions about what’s going on and offer to cooperate to resolve the issues, the USDA is a very different animal. The case analysts (that is, the person whose name and number were in the SNAP Violation charge letter) is charged with the task of collecting evidence against you in relation to the charges. They come across as professional and personable individuals, but these same analysts are well trained to ask you questions and interpret your replies as admissions of guilt.
What You Should Not Do with Your SNAP Violation Charge Letter:
There are no such things in these cases as conversations being “off the record.” Everything you say to them can and will be used against you. In general, if you request an explanation from a program specialist regarding what they’re expecting to find, they then turn around and instruct you to mail them an explanation in writing for the transactions in question. Additionally, they will request that you mail them supporting documents that you believe might assist them in a review of your transactions. Neither of those instructions is to alleviate the problem for you. Quickly peruse our website and you will find much more SNAP violation advice than a conversation with a USDA employee.
Furthermore, be warned that department associates do not negotiate with accused violators. Much unlike other state organizations, the USDA is not in the habit of lowering charges or penalties. The very fact that you got a letter from them demonstrates their intention to disqualify you. Although the SNAP Violation Charge Letter mentions a Civil Money Penalty, in reality, the USDA only issues less than ten of those in any given year. More frequently, the USDA disqualifies businesses.
Never verbally acknowledge that any wrongdoing took place at your store, nor should you make such an acknowledgement in writing. There are a myriad of legitimate situations under which their data may make it appear that there’s something off color at your place of business when in reality, there were never any infractions perpetrated there. Before you have an opportunity to sit down with a SNAP violation attorney or at least review your own records, you can’t know for certain if any of their charges have any validity. The worst action you can take is to acknowledge any validity in the allegations made in an inaccurate SNAP Violation charge letter. Indeed, you should go through our website to get more details about the different violation categories.
Avoid jumping to accuse your workers of the infractions. Communicating to the officer that it was someone else’s doing will backfire on you. The SNAP legislation is clear that regardless of the fact that it was your parking lot attendant who perpetrated the trafficking offence, you (the proprietor) are no less responsible. Furthermore, there’s a decent chance that your staff members have not broken any laws. Even stating that you were not on site in the store can be used against you by the USDA.
Enlist good help in crafting and dispatching your response. The majority of responses that are sent directly by the shop owner in question are perceived skeptically by the USDA. In a case analysis I recently read, the analyst stated “of course the store would deny the charges in order to keep their EBT business.” They espouse the belief that your response is sure to be embedded with compromised information or that something was kept out. Utilizing a SNAP Violation attorney can give you the edge to avoid the mistakes most unaware individuals make in these cases. If your EBT business is important to your store’s survival, paying to have your case professionally defended is a wise investment. Otherwise, your case could be in great jeopardy because of errors of inexperience.
Recommendations for Your Response
We highly recommend that you bring in a professional to take care of these matters, but should you opt to represent yourself, here are a few recommendations:
Be as specific as you can. A program specialist reviewing your case has never been in your grocery store. Your customers and their spending habits are foriegh to them. The USDA needs to be provided with a better understanding of how you run your business and what preventative measures you have already implemented to prevent SNAP violations. Be sure to include as much detail (and photos) as you can in your reply.
If you are accused of a violation in the SNAP Violation charge letter, interview your staff members. Once that process is complete, if iyou find out that none of them perpetrated a violation, then share that information with the agency.
Don’t ever attempt to guess about the identity of a household. If the USDA provided you with a data-driven SNAP Violation charge letter, it will come with a list of transactions. Try to stop yourself from attempting to guess which families made which purchases. In the event that you are 100% sure who it was, then you share this information with the agency. Bear in mind that if you guess incorrectly, the agents will believe that you are lying and you will lose credibility with them.
In cases where you had to provide invoices for your inventory, furnish them for the Review Period. The review period is defined as the date range of transactions that you see in the attachments. If you only provide selected ranges, then they will reject all of them.
We Can Assist You In Correctly Responding to a SNAP Violation Charge Letter
Specialist attorneys on our team have represented many retail store owners since 2013 in SNAP violations matters. We boast a greater breadth and depth of experience than any other SNAP firm or attorney in the country, and our fees will likely work with your budget. If you are in receipt of a charge letter and you need answers, or if you are interested in getting a free consultation, we are available to speak with you at your convenience any day of the week. The quickest way to get an appointment with us is by filling in our online intake form.
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