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If you own or manage a store that accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps)benefits, you know the importance of remaining compliant with program rules. Unfortunately, there are some situations in which you, or your staff, may be found to be in violation of program regulations.
What are Typical SNAP Violations?
The Retailer Training Guide from the USDA lists some of the most common violations. The most serious is trafficking, in which a store owner or employee pays cash to a SNAP recipient in exchange for a benefit amount. Next, is exchanging firearms for benefits. The penalties for these violations are severe.
Other violations that can result in a disqualification include accepting SNAP benefits for prohibited items. Selling tobacco or alcohol in exchange for food stamps is treated as a more serious violation than the sale of things like toilet paper or pet food.
SNAP Violation Letters
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the administration of the SNAP program. Federal investigators carefully monitor SNAP transactions and are quick to spot fraud. If investigators find that your business has violated SNAP policies, you can expect to receive a letter from the USDA informing you that it intends to take action against your store.
The Possible Consequences
The federal government has the option of imposing a variety of penalties. These include fines as well as permanent or temporary disqualification from the SNAP program. Because SNAP purchases can make up a significant portion of your store’s sales, losing this income could harm your business significantly.
Depending on the violations, you may be offered the option of paying a civil money penalty in lieu of program disqualification. Many store owners opt to pay this penalty, as it is likely less than the cost of a lengthy disqualification.
However, not all retailers will qualify for this option. If you are guilty of trafficking SNAP benefits or selling firearms or ammunition for benefit funds, you won’t be able to pay a fine in lieu of disqualification.
In addition, federal regulations make it clear that the store must meet all four of the following criteria to avoid being disqualified from the program:
1. Your shop must have developed a SNAP compliance policy.
2. Your compliance program was in operation before the violation or violations took place.
3. Your store has a training program for your employees.
4. Neither you, nor a fellow owner of the store, knew about, approved or benefitted from the fraud. If you did know or benefit from the violation, it was the first time this has happened.
You’ll be expected to detail your compliance with the above criteria in your response to the USDA letter.
The Time Limit
The USDA gives you only ten days to respond to their letter. For many business owners, this isn’t a lot of time to investigate what happened and to complete the information the agency requests.
Why You Need an Attorney for Your SNAP Violation Case
It’s understandable that you might be confused or upset when you receive your violation letter. After all, a disqualification threatens your business and income. However, this is not the time for a do-it-yourself approach. Failure to respond, or to respond appropriately, can cost your store a significant amount of money and result in customer ill-will.
A lawyer with SNAP experience can assist you in responding to the USDA if you believe that your store is not in violation of SNAP regulations.If you believe that your store was in violation, the attorney can help you provide the USDA with documentation of your eligibility for a fine instead of disqualification. In some cases, the attorney can also assist with keeping your fines as low as possible.