SNAP Trafficking Undercover Investigation Win

A Small SNAP Store

There was a small grocery store in Ruskin, Florida that operated as a neighborhood staple.  It wasn't big by any stretch of the imagination, but the store sold fresh meat, large bags of rice and a number of cooked chicken and Spanish meals.  The store owners poured years of hard work, money and effort into the store and were very proud of how it grew.

Because the neighborhood was poor, the store applied for a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) license.  They were granted the SNAP license and began processing EBT transactions a few years ago.  Not long after that, the store was investigated by the USDA.

Trafficking in SNAP Benefits

In April of 2021, the small Ruskin grocery store received a letter from the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).  In it, the USDA claimed that the store had been charged with trafficking.

"Your Firm is charged with trafficking, as defined in Section 271.2 of the SNAP regulations.  As provided by Section 278.6(e)(1) of the SNAP regulations, the sanction for the trafficking violation(s) noted in the Exhibits is permanent disqualification." USDA Trafficking Charge Letter

As the store owner turned the pages of the letter, he found a set of affidavits from an undercover investigator.  In each of the affidavits, the investigator outlined what allegedly occurred in the visits to the store.  He stated that a particular store clerk had sold him ineligible items (plastic plates and forks) a number of times.  On his third and fourth visits though, the investigator claimed that the clerk had given him cash in exchange for EBT benefits.  The investigator described the third transaction:

"I entered the subject store, placed all items on the counter, and presented the EBT card to the clerk for purchase.  The clerk made no mention of the non-food items being purchased using SNAP benefits and completed the transaction.  I asked the clerk for cash back off my EBT card, and the clerk agreed.  The clerk asked me how much I wanted, and I said 'as much as you can give me.'  The clerk then swiped the EBT card for the second time and retrieved $100 (5 - $20) from the register and handed it to me.  I asked the clerk if I could return tomorrow for more cash off my EBT benefits and the clerk said 'ok.'" - Undercover Investigator

The first transaction description looked back to the store owner.  He worried that the undercover investigator's statements were so clear and direct, the store's clerk must have been guilty.  He flipped another few pages and found the second transaction description:

"I entered the subject store and spoke with the clerk from my previous visit.  I told the clerk that I needed cash from my food stamps off my EBT card.  The clerk asked if I was willing to sell my EBT card for cash and I agreed.  The clerk told me to swipe my card in the EBT machine.  The clerk then retrieved $100 (5 -$20) from the cash register and handed it to me. and told me to only deal with him if I was to return and I said, 'ok.'" - Undercover Investigator

Now What?

Almost a week passed while the store owner tried to figure out how to respond to the Charge Letter.  He interviewed his employees and asked about the transactions described in the investigator's statements.  Was he going to lose his business?  EBT transactions accounted for more than 40% of his revenue.  Many of his regular customers visited the store for tobacco and alcohol products because he also accepted EBT.  If he was disqualified from SNAP, how much more revenue would he lose?

He reached out to our firm, Metropolitan Law Group for help.  He never had been accused of any kind of violation in all the years he owned stores.  What needed to be done?

Metropolitan Law Group

Our firm was retained on day seven after the retailer had received the Charge Letter.  The allegations looked bad on paper, but that's not uncommon in SNAP cases.  Many undercover investigators leave out key details in the transaction that change how everything looks.   The store owner was not present for any of the transactions, so he assumed that the investigator's statements were 100% correct, but when we interviewed the store clerk about the transactions, we noticed something was left out.

The store clerk told us:

"The investigator came into the store multiple times before the 13th.  As he would enter the store, he would try to engage in conversation to build a relationship with me like I have with a majority of the customers that shop at our store.  He would continuously tell me about his financial struggles he had since he arrived in our city.  On the day he said I trafficked, he told me he needed the money to pay his phone bill and help his kids since he had no money.  He made me feel guilty and showed me how his local Miami store would do so.  Out of the goodness of my heart, I felt the need to help him... I went against the owner's rules even though I was warned numerous times to not complete any transactions that violate the rules."

Investigators almost always have a sad story to tell about why they need cash, but this investigator crossed a line.  He used his children against the retailer's clerk.  The store clerk, who knew better than to violate the rules, felt like he had to choose between the safety of the kids and violating SNAP rules.

It was entrapment.

Our office filed a response to the Charge Letter before the deadline and argued that the investigation was not valid.  Nearly nine months after we sent our reply, the USDA withdrew the charges.  The retailer's license was safe.

Protecting Your Store: Metropolitan Law

We take pride in offering our clients the highest quality service in the SNAP retailer industry.  We are nationally recognized, and represent or consult with retailers in every state.  We are proud to have handled more SNAP matters over the last decade than any other firm in the nation.  If your store needs protection, our experts can help.

SNAP Admin

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