SNAP Violation Letters
A SNAP Violation Letter from the United States Department of Agriculture looks like a simple letter when you receive it in the mail. There are either specific allegations about an undercover investigation, or a list of categories for “suspicious transactions” that have occurred at your store. In appearance, the letter and its contents are informal, but it is a completely different process and mindset on the part of the Food and Nutrition Service that sent you the letter. One such example is as follows:
The USDA Wants to Permanently Disqualify Your Store
The Department has stepped up enforcement of EBT violations since 2013. The USDA conducted a study a few years ago which found that trafficking was more common. Specifically, the Department found that more than 11% of SNAP retailers were trafficking in food stamps. To fix this, the Department became more aggressive in its efforts in two areas: (1) an increase in undercover investigations and (2) an increase in utilization of the ALERT system. If you received a SNAP Violation charge letter with written transaction descriptions, then your store has been shopped by a Retail Investigative Branch (RIB) investigator. If your SNAP Violation charge letter has just a list of transactions attached to it, then the Department utilized data analysis with the Investigative Analysis Branch (IAB).
In either case, the USDA wants to be known as a tough enforcer. It adopted a “zero tolerance” policy in order to disqualify as many stores as possible. Over the past three years, the USDA has increased enforcement and disqualifications by 30% – meaning hundreds more retailers are receiving Charge Letters.
What Not to Tell the USDA
For purposes of this exercise, I will address SNAP Violation charge letters that set out a list of transactions and accuse your store of trafficking in SNAP benefits. The worst thing you can do is to immediately call the USDA. Though it is always good with state agencies to call the investigating agent to determine what’s going on, the USDA works differently. The Program Specialist (the person whose name and number you received in the SNAP Violation charge letter) is there to collect evidence against you. They tend to be very nice, professional people, but they will ask you questions and interpret things that you may say as admissions of guilt.
They will not try to give you more information or help you with your response. They’ll tell you to submit in writing any explanation you think may explain the transactions, and to send them your receipts or invoices. That’s it, and I’ve already told you everything they will.
Five Important Notes for SNAP Violation Letters:
- There are no conversations “off the record.” Everything you tell them can/will be used against you. Typically, if you ask a program specialist to tell you what they’re looking for, they will ask you to write an explanation for the transactions and send it to them. They will also tell you to send them anything that you think might help them review your transactions. None of that information is particularly useful or instructive. Accordingly, reading through our website will give you more SNAP violation advice than a telephone call with the USDA.
- They will not negotiate with you. Unlike state agencies, the Department is not willing to reduce their charge to a fine or a warning. If they sent you a letter, they want to disqualify you. Though the SNAP Violation Charge Letter lists a Civil Money Penalty, the USDA typically issues fewer than ten of those per year. Instead, the USDA wants to disqualify your store.
- Do not acknowledge that anything wrong has happened at your store. If you don’t have personal knowledge about the transactions, don’t just guess or accept the USDA’s conclusions. There are a myriad of legitimate reasons why their data would indicate that there’s something wrong at your store when there are no violations present. Until you have the opportunity to consult with a SNAP violation attorney, or look through your own records, you can’t tell if the charges are accurate. The worst thing you can do is acknowledge an inaccurate SNAP Violation letter. Instead, read through our website to learn more about the different violation categories.
- Don’t accuse your employees of wrongdoing. This is not an area of law where telling the officer that it was someone else’s fault will work. The SNAP regulations are clear that even if your parking lot attendant commits trafficking, you (the owner) are still responsible. Furthermore, if you don’t know that anything wrong happened, then don’t state that you know what happened. Additionally, there’s a decent chance that none of your employees have violated the rules, and if they did, then the explanation can be offered in writing. But a statement to the USDA that you were not present in the store will be used against you, and doesn’t help you anyway.
- Seek help in creating your response. Most responses that are done by the charged store are viewed skeptically by the USDA. In one case analysis I read, the program specialist stated “of course the store would deny the charges in order to keep their EBT business.” There is a belief that your response contains doctored the information or is hiding something. Hiring a SNAP Violation lawyer can give you insight to avoid the pitfalls. If you value your EBT business, it’s worth more to pay to have the cases professionally defended. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing the case because of easy mistakes.
We Can Help You Respond to a SNAP Violation Charge Letter
Our firm has been representing retail store owners since 2013 in cases involving SNAP violations. At last estimate, we have handled around 600 cases since that time. Our attorneys have experience than any other SNAP firm or attorney in the country, and our fees are usually less expensive than other firms. These cases are a passion for us, and we dedicate our time and attention to each of the stores we have the pleasure of representing.
If you have any questions, or would like a free consultation, we are available to speak to you whenever it may be convenient for you. The fastest way (7 days a week) to contact us is through our online intake form. You may also call us Monday through Friday at 1(833) SNAP-LAW.