Along with the millions of people helped by SNAP each year, there are some cases of abuse in the system due to fraud or misuse of funds. The government takes these cases seriously, and some people may find themselves under a SNAP fraud investigation if this is suspected.
Many families in the United States struggle to make ends meet and may not always have the resources to feed their families nutritious meals every day. For those that need assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers funds. While SNAP is a federal program, it is administered by states and can include a variety of regulations and eligibility requirements.
As the largest federal nutrition assistance program, SNAP provides benefits to low-income individuals and families. The goal is to provide people with their basic nutritional needs to get through temporary financial hardships, allowing them to get back on their feet and begin repairing their finances. While anyone can be eligible for SNAP, there is a particular focus on children and giving them a chance at a healthy adulthood. Seniors and those with disabilities are also often recipients of these funds.
Though SNAP is a federal program, each state is able to decide how funds are distributed and set its own eligibility requirements. The costs of administration are split between the federal and state government.
The benefits provided by SNAP are distributed by an Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, card. This acts as a debit card that is regularly loaded with your allotted benefits. Designated stores can accept this card so that recipients do not have to use paper vouchers or other cumbersome forms of payment.
The average SNAP benefits are $127 a month, or $4.17 per day. The formula used to determine benefits assumes that a family spends 30% of their income on food and makes up the gap needed to be nutritionally satisfied based on this calculation. This is means-tested, meaning that a poorer family will receive more benefits.
The Georgia SNAP program is known as Georgia Food Stamps. Qualification is based on two main factors: household size and income. Household size takes into account anyone you make or buy food for, such as children, spouses, or family members; a tenant would not count as a household member. Income limits will be based on household size.
Additional Georgia eligibility takes into account the amount of money in an applicant’s bank account. Combined checking and savings balance must be under $2,001 (or $3,001 if you care for an elderly person or person with a disability) in order to qualify. You must also be a resident of Georgia.
While EBT cards are widely accepted, there are a number of regulations surrounding what can be purchased using SNAP benefits.
Certain establishments are off-limits altogether. Liquor stores, casinos, gaming stations, and adult venues like strip clubs are all unable to accept EBT cards. If a card is somehow used there, this is considered a violation of SNAP rules.
EBT cards are accepted at grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, and other places you can purchase food. However, there are limits on the food that can be purchased as well. While the goal is to provide nutritious food, essentially any ingredients can be purchased. The only time food is off-limits is if it is a prepared hot meal or it is food intended to be eaten in the store.
Non-food items like household supplies, toiletries, medication, or vitamins are also not able to be purchased with SNAP. Alcohol and tobacco products are strictly forbidden.
Unfortunately, there are times where people try to abuse SNAP benefits and receive funds they aren’t eligible to use. This is a form of public assistance fraud and is punishable under federal law and some state laws.
SNAP fraud can occur in a number of ways. In some cases, a retailer who accepts EBT funds when they shouldn’t can be accused of this, and some retailers may falsely apply for funding related to benefits that they are not entitled to receive. However, the more common form of welfare fraud is committed by individuals within the system. There are three common scenarios considered SNAP fraud:
As with any fraud charges, a SNAP fraud case requires that the individual commits the fraud both knowingly and intentionally. Honest mistakes on paperwork or during a purchase may lead to a case being dropped if there is no evidence that there was malice behind the action.
Under federal law, this type of fraud is a crime. It may be classified as public assistance or welfare fraud, or some states may consider it theft, perjury, or forgery and charge an individual under those statutes.
Depending on the severity of the offense, the penalties for welfare fraud can vary and include suspension of benefits, permanent disqualification from benefits, restitution, or incarceration.
In Georgia, the amount of money related to the fraud determines whether an offense is a misdemeanor or a felony. Anything under $1500 is a misdemeanor, while larger amounts will come with the greater charge. These can be tried and may be eligible for jail time. Whether someone is sentenced to jail time or not, they are likely to be asked to repay their benefits in full.
Georgia also punishes offenders by suspending them from the Georgia Food Stamps program. A first offense comes with a one-year suspension, a second offense for two years, and a third offense leaves an individual permanently disqualified.
In some cases, the prosecutor may allow for a case to be adjudicated as an administrative hearing rather than a criminal trial. These procedures will be different from a criminal proceeding, but usually still lead to disqualification and restitution.
If you have been accused of SNAP fraud, it is important to retain the services of a seasoned attorney to help with your case. Because these are criminal trials, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, placing the burden on them. A defense attorney will be able to build a case that demonstrates you did not knowingly or intentionally commit fraud or otherwise create the reasonable doubt needed for an acquittal.
Defense lawyers are also familiar with the administrative hearing process and can argue for cases to be diverted from the court. By assuring the court you will pay restitution and suspend your use of benefits, many times a lawyer can help you to avoid criminal charges and potential jail time.