Food stamp benefits, also known by the federal acronym for the program SNAP or in Ohio as the Ohio Food Assistance Program, are intended to help low-income families who have trouble putting food on the table while also meeting obligations such as rent or utilities.
The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through state and county social and human service agencies. In February 2015, the last month for which data was available, about 1.68 million people in Ohio received food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit for Ohioans on SNAP in 2014 was $122.84.
Most people who receive food stamps use the benefits for their intended purpose, but there’s also an illegal black market for the debit-style cards, known as electronic benefit transfer or EBT cards, issued to recipients. The cards are limited to use at participating stores, and the money on them can only be used to buy items approved by the program. Sometimes, people who receive food stamps may sell their benefit cards to someone else for cash and find themselves facing criminal charges for food stamp fraud.
Food stamp fraud is a serious criminal offense, and the possible consequences for a conviction may include:
- A jail or prison sentence — possibly served in a federal prison
- Expensive fines and court fees
- A permanent criminal record that can affect your ability to get a job or rent an apartment
- Loss of your food stamp benefits
- An order to pay restitution
- Possible effects on your immigration status if you’re a non-U.S. citizen, including deportation or denial of your application for an immigration visa, green card, or citizenship
If you or a family member is facing a charge of food stamp fraud, the help of an experienced Ohio fraud defense lawyer may be critical to avoid losing your food stamp benefits or suffering even more serious long-term consequences.
What is Food Stamp Fraud?
It’s a crime under both federal and Ohio state laws to commit fraud involving food stamps. How the offense is defined is similar under the United States Code and the Ohio Revised Code.
Under 7 U.S. Code §2024, it’s a federal felony offense to:
- Illegally use SNAP benefits
- Illegally transfer SNAP benefits
- Illegally acquire SNAP benefits
- Alter SNAP benefits
- Illegally possess SNAP benefits
Ohio Rev. Code §2913.46 makes it a felony crime to:
- Buy someone else’s EBT card, food stamp benefits, or WIC benefits
- Sell your EBT card or benefits
- Possess someone else’s EBT card or benefits
- Alter an EBT card or benefits
- Present someone else’s EBT card or benefits for redemption, such as trying to use someone else’s card at a grocery store
If you are suspected of doing any of these things, you may be charged with illegal use of food stamps. The offense is a felony under any circumstance, but the penalties are more severe the higher the dollar amounts involved in the alleged fraud.
Penalties for a Food Stamp Fraud Conviction
Federal regulations under 7 CFR 273.16 places the burden on state agencies, such as the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, to investigate allegations of SNAP fraud and to refer them to the appropriate jurisdictions for prosecution. The regulation encourages local prosecution of food stamp fraud allegations, meaning if you’re suspected of food stamp fraud in Ohio, your case likely would be prosecuted in an Ohio court for violation of Ohio’s food stamp fraud statute. However, in some instances, it is possible that a food stamp fraud case may be prosecuted in a federal court, in particular if the alleged fraud involves crossing state lines.
The possible penalties for a conviction vary based on whether your charge is prosecuted under Ohio or federal law, and the amount of the alleged fraud.
If you’re charged with food stamp fraud under Ohio law in a Cincinnati area court, the possible penalties include:
- Less than $1,000 — The offense is a 5th degree felony punishable by a prison term of 6 to 12 months and a fine of up to $2,500.
- $1,000 to $7,500 — The offense is a 4th degree felony punishable by a prison term of 6 to 18 months and a fine of up to $5,000.
- $7,500 to $150,000 — The offense is a 3rd degree felony punishable by a prison term of 9 months to 3 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
- More than $150,000 — The offense is a 2nd degree felony punishable by a prison term of 2 to 8 years and a fine of up to $15,000.
When a prosecutor files charges against you, he or she can add up multiple allegations of food stamp fraud over a 12-month period to determine the level of felony, so if you’re charged with numerous instances of food stamp fraud involving benefits that are less than $1,000, you still could face a more serious felony charge when those instances are aggregated.
If you are charged with food stamp fraud in a federal court, a Cincinnati fraud defense attorney could help. The possible penalties are based on the nature of the fraud, and the dollar value of the food stamp benefit involved.
When the allegation is one of unauthorized use, transfer, acquisition, alteration, or possession of benefits, the possible penalties include:
- Less than $100 — The offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. In addition, the court may suspend your SNAP benefits, and any property used in the commission of the offense may be forfeit.
- $100 to $5,000 — The offense is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 on a first offense. A second or subsequent offense is punishable by a mandatory minimum 6-month sentence, and up to 5 years, as well as a fine of up to $10,000. In addition, the court may suspend your SNAP benefits, and any property used in the commission of the offense may be forfeit.
- $5,000 or more — The offense is a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. In addition, the court may suspend your SNAP benefits, and any property used in the commission of the offense may be forfeit.
When the allegation is that you presented for payment or redemption benefits that had been illegally received, transferred, or used, the possible penalties include:
- Less than $100 — The offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. In addition, a court may suspend your SNAP benefits, and any property used in the commission of the offense may be forfeit.
- $100 or more — The offense is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 on a first offense. The penalty for a second or subsequent conviction is 1 to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. In addition, a court may suspend your SNAP benefits, and any property used in the commission of the offense may be forfeit.
Defending Your Food Stamp Fraud Charge
An allegation that you’ve committed food stamp fraud is a serious matter. You could face a lengthy prison sentence and thousands of dollars in fines if you’re convicted — and lose your access to the SNAP benefits that put food on your table if your family is low-income. However, even when you’re facing a frightening and stressful criminal charge, the situation isn’t without hope. An experienced Cincinnati fraud defense attorney may be able to help you fight the charge.
A skilled theft and fraud defense lawyer who knows the prosecutors and courts in the Cincinnati area where your charge is pending, and has an understanding of Ohio and federal laws regarding food stamp fraud, may be able to get your charge dismissed or your penalties reduced. Each case is unique, and your outcome will depend on the facts, the evidence, and the arguments your lawyer presents, but it may be possible to get a result that protects your rights and your family.