A major goal of the authorities who administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to ensure that the right people receive their much needed food benefits and that those benefits are utilized for their intended purpose only. There are specific laws on the books to govern the use of SNAP funds. Grocery retailers undergo a process to become qualified before they receive a license to sell food to individuals with Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. Such stores don’t often end up in legal trouble connected to food benefits, but it does occur from time to time. If, by chance, this should happen, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dispatches a 10 (ten)-day notice to the proprietor. Inside the ten day window, the store owner can respond to the letter, explaining the violations from your perspective in writing.
SNAP Legal Sanctions
Should you neglect to reply to the SNAP violation accusations within the 10 (ten) days, you could be placing your EBT license in danger of being suspended temporarily, or in some cases, permanently revoked. You might also be charged lofty civil fines. The penalties negatively impact your business’ total revenue, especially if SNAP sales make up a major source of income for your store. You don’t want to accidentally sell Cakebread wine for example. The duration of a temporary suspension relies upon the number of cases and the extent of the evidence against you. Furthermore, if there has been a history of SNAP law violations on your record (more than two prior breaches constitutes a history), the USDA can disqualify you for longer periods. Temporary disqualification periods can be as short as 6 (six) months, but in some cases, it can be as much as 5 (five) years.
Where civil fines are concerned, the maximum amount that can be charged for violating SNAP legislation is $59,000. In every case, the amount charged correlates with the amount of money you transact in SNAP purchases. They also take into account the type and quantity of charges made against you to determine the amount of monetary sanctions.
In extreme cases, you can potentially face criminal charges. Criminal charges in connection with SNAP violations are rather infrequent. They normally only come into play in matters where the amount of money transacted is really large.
Commonly, a store proprietor may be totally oblivious of violations made by their staff members that violate SNAP rules. Some reasons for this could be insufficient or lack of training of staff or intentional illegal transactions or activities that are made by staff without the owner’s knowledge.
To avoid the possibility of getting disqualified from the EBT program because of staff behavior, it is very important that you make certain that every employee, especially your cashiers, get thorough training in all the details of how to serve SNAP customers at your store. You should document their training in writing to cover yourself. Thorough and detailed documentation could make the difference between keeping you in business and closing your shop down, even if you are convicted and fined. Your compliance policies at your store must be in effect before the USDA charges were ever filed against your business. This can only be solid proof if you keep dated logs with the signatures of every individual who was involved to show when the traing took place. Your training program entries should show clearly when the employees were done with the training and you should have them sign to that effect. It should also lay out all of the details of what they were taught when and how to accept and process EBT card transactions.
In lieu of handling this training yourself and possibly overlooking key details, you can bring in a New York attorney who specializes in SNAP law to implement the training of your staff members. Lawyers with experience in this area can organize effective compliance programs for your store. This measure of prevention will help your lawyers if they need to mount a strong defense in the future if you ever receive violation notices.
It is also worth noting that the legislation does not consider if you were on the premises when the fraudulent transactions allegedly occurred or if you were offsite. You will be held responsible regardless of that fact for any violations that took place in your place of business, and the best you can do is lower the probability of losing your EBT privileges. That said, your chances of drawing a suspension from the SNAP program are way lower if neither you nor the management of the store benefited directly from the violations.
Once a violation notice arrives, it is critical to get in touch with an attorney quickly to respond to the USDA appropriately and in a timely fashion.
What Specific Actions Can Lead to SNAP Violation Charges
There are a number of reasons why you may end up with a charge letter from USDA. One of these is a crime known as trafficking. One form of trafficking, for example, is when a store owner or employee knowingly sells goods to people who are using a fraudulently procured EBT card. The use of stolen EBT cards is also considered trafficking.
Grocers are also forbidden from selling certain unqualified items using EBT cards. A detailed list of foods and non-alcoholic drinks can be purchased using these cards. On the other hand, using EBT cards to sell hot foods that are meant to be consumed in the store is against the law. Additionally, items including cigarettes, alcohol, medications, and non-human foods (such as pet food) are all included in the list of items that should never be purchased or sold using SNAP benefits. A wide range of food meant for human consumption and designed to be prepared and consumed at home are included in the list of items that a SNAP beneficiary can purchase with their EBT card.
There are business owners who were sent violation notices because they gave inaccurate information on their applications to obtain the USDA’s approval as a SNAP retailer. To get authorized, step one is to obtain an FNS number. This requires you to sell food for preparation and consumption at home. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) also obligates registered retailers to commit to selling items in at least three of these four food categories:
- Dairy Products
- Fruits and Vegetables
Perishability is a criteria defined as foods that will spoil in a maximum of three weeks. In addition, a minimum of 50 (fifty) percent of the store’s total sales receipts must be of staple foods that qualify for EBT card purchases. Again, ready-made foods are not considered staple foods for the purposes of the SNAP program are excluded. They have to be sold for preparation at home. A donut shop, for example, cannot qualify for an FNS number. Restaurants also cannot be deemed eligible for EBT cards. When the owner of a grocery store applies for approval to transact using SNAP benefits, they are asked to furnish information about the store and how it meets these obligations. In addition, they must provide up-to-date information on the store names, store type, address, hours of operation, annual sales, and the personal information of the owner. The owner’s personal details requested will include the social security number and home address.
Being crystal clear about all of the above requirements and the accompanying definitions will save you from the mishap of submitting inaccurate information to the FNS for qualification.
The USDA is actively seeking out and targeting retail store owners who are violating SNAP legislation. Normally, the owners of targeted stores will receive a notice 10 (ten) days before USDA takes any action against them. Within this period of time, the proprietor has an opportunity to send in their explanations of the charges and make defenses. Such violations can end up, at worst, in the permanent suspension of your EBT program, especially if you or any of your store managers benefited directly from the forbidden activities. At minimum, you will end up paying fines, but you can still carry on operations in the store. Your best move is to consult with a lawyer to oversee a thorough training of your staff and, in the event that you do get a letter, to assemble a defense against the charges.