Enforcement and Penalties
Generally, a retailer may be penalized in four ways for violating SNAP provisions.
- First, FNS may disqualify the market (or a vendor) from the SNAP program on a temporary or permanent basis.
- Second, instead of disqualification, FNS may issue monetary penalties against the market (or vendor) if FNS determines that disqualification would cause hardship to participating SNAP customers.
- Third, the market’s “responsible official(s)” may be barred from future SNAP authorization.
- Finally, market personnel (or the vendor) may be subject to criminal sanctions for intentional fraud or trafficking (purposefully exchanging ineligible items for SNAP funds).
For more on enforcement and penalties, read below.
- How does FNS monitor markets for SNAP compliance?
- How does the penalty process work?
- What are potential penalties for SNAP violations?
- Can a farmers market (or vendor) appeal a sanction from FNS?
How does FNS monitor markets for SNAP compliance?
FNS may conduct (unannounced or undercover) on-site investigations. It may also gather evidence of SNAP violations from monitoring redemption data and EBT transaction reports.
Additionally, FNS requires that each SNAP-authorized retailer (farmers market or vendor) post an FNS sign providing information on how to report SNAP abuse. The retailer must post the sign in a “suitable and conspicuous location,” that is, the sign must be easy for market personnel, vendors, customers, and other market participants to see.
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How does the penalty process work?
For civil penalties (anything besides criminal sanctions), there is a three-step process:
If FNS believes that an authorized SNAP retailer has violated or is violating SNAP provisions, the appropriate FNS regional field office sends the retailer a letter outlining the allegations against it. The letter must detail what the alleged violations are and must inform the market (or vendor) that it can respond to the letter within ten days of receipt.
Within 10 days of receiving the charge letter, the market (or vendor) may send a response to the FNS regional office containing information, evidence, or explanations concerning the alleged violations. The FNS regional office takes the response into account before issuing a final determination on the allegations.
FNS looks at three different factors in making a disqualification or penalty determination. First, FNS considers the “nature and scope” of the violations. Second, FNS considers any prior actions taken by FNS to warn the retailer that violations are occurring. Finally, FNS looks at any other evidence that would show the intent behind the retailer’s actions.
Once it considers these factors, FNS generally levies three kinds of penalties: (1) a warning letter, (2) temporary or permanent disqualification from participation in SNAP, or (3) monetary fines.
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What are potential penalties for SNAP violations?
If the violation is “too limited to warrant a disqualification,” FNS may issue a warning letter to the SNAP-authorized market (or vendor).
Temporary or Permanent Disqualification
FNS may also “disqualify” a SNAP-authorized market (or vendor) for SNAP rule violations, including selling ineligible items in exchange for SNAP benefits. A market (or vendor) that is disqualified has its SNAP authorization revoked and may no longer accept SNAP benefits. FNS may disqualify a market (or vendor) from the SNAP program on a temporary or permanent basis.
- First time sanction: disqualification for six months to 5 years;
- Second time sanction: disqualification for 12 months to 10 years;
- For a third sanction, trafficking, or knowingly submitting false information on an application that could affect eligibility: permanent disqualification.
Note: a warning letter is not a sanction.
In certain circumstances, FNS may impose a monetary penalty in lieu of disqualification. For example:
FNS may impose a monetary penalty instead of temporary disqualification if the market (or vendor) is selling a “substantial variety” of staple foods and temporary disqualification would harm SNAP beneficiaries by reducing their access to food in areas without other SNAP-authorized retailers offering a similar variety of foods at comparable prices.
FNS may impose a monetary penalty instead of permanent disqualification if the market (or vendor) shows FNS evidence demonstrating that the market had established and implemented an effective compliance policy to prevent SNAP violations.
Notably, while paying monetary penalties may be undesirable for the market (or vendor), disqualification may be harmful to SNAP customers as well.
Sanction of Responsible Official(s)
The market’s “responsible official(s)” may be barred from future SNAP authorization.
Individuals who undertake criminal activity in the context of SNAP transactions may also be subject to criminal penalties, including fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to 20 years. Criminal activities include fraud and trafficking (knowingly exchanging SNAP benefits for ineligible items).
For FNS resources regarding fraud, click here (“What is SNAP Fraud?”) and here (“Fighting SNAP Fraud”).
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Can a farmers market (or vendor) appeal a sanction from FNS?
Yes. After the market (or vendor) receives a charge letter, submits a response letter (within 10 days), and receives a final notice of determination (a disqualification or monetary penalty), it has 30 days to appeal that determination to a court. The market (or vendor) can file the complaint in the federal district court where it resides or in a State court with jurisdiction. The court then reviews the determination anew and makes a ruling.
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