When the government judges someone’s integrity, it should do so based on who they are today—not who they were 20 years ago. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), however, imposes a permanent ban from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on food retailers who have committed any offense related to alcohol, drugs, or firearms.
Altimont Mark Wilks is one of the many entrepreneurs impacted by the USDA’s lifetime ban. Altimont served time in prison after he was arrested for dealing drugs back in 2004. By the time he came home, he was in his late 40s and wanted a fresh start. His mother, Carmen, helped him get back on his feet and fulfill his dream of owning his own business. Altimont opened a community-focused convenience store by his home in Hagerstown, Maryland, with the goal of providing affordable food to the people in his neighborhood. He named it Carmen’s Corner Store to honor his mother’s commitment and generosity.
More than one in every five households near Altimont’s Hagerstown store depends on SNAP benefits to buy their groceries. As Altimont would soon learn, though, the USDA prohibits lots of business owners with a criminal record from accepting SNAP benefits at their stores. But the USDA doesn’t just punish crimes like fraud or business-related offenses that might suggest that an owner could steal from SNAP. For some unknown reason, the USDA reserves its harshest punishment for business owners who’ve previously committed offenses related to alcohol, drugs, or firearms.
That policy prevents Altimont from ever accepting SNAP benefits at his store—something that makes it difficult for his business to compete in the market and effectively serve his community. There’s nothing Altimont could ever do in his lifetime that would convince the USDA that he is more than the mistakes he made two decades ago.
But Altimont is undeterred. With growing community support for Carmen’s Corner Store, Altimont opened a second location in Frederick, Maryland. He once again applied to be a SNAP retailer, and the USDA once again imposed a permanent ban on his new store.
This time, Altimont was ready. He teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a lawsuit challenging the USDA’s permanent ban in federal court. The government cannot exclude businesses from its programs for irrational reasons. Permanently banning Altimont from being a SNAP retailer doesn’t make sense—it just deprives people in his community of access to affordable groceries, which defeats the entire purpose of SNAP. That’s why Altimont and IJ are asking the court to rule that the USDA’s permanent ban is invalid. A victory will vindicate the simple truth that old and irrelevant criminal convictions should not prevent anyone from getting a fresh start.
In December, 2023, the USDA and Altimont reached a settlement. The agency will now let Altimont reapply to become a certified SNAP retailer, and will stop permanently punishing individuals with certain drug offenses.
The Life Altimont Overcame
Altimont grew up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and ’80s, was recruited into a gang, and was arrested on drug charges.
His final arrest was in 2004, while he was living in western Maryland. He participated in a controlled drug buy that the police organized across the Pennsylvania border. Because the drugs moved across state lines, he faced federal time. Altimont served over 14 years in prison until his release in June 2018.
Altimont’s Return to Society
When Altimont returned home, he got a job driving for FedEx. He saved up money from that job to start his own business, and with support from his mother and sister, he opened Carmen’s Corner Store (named after his mother) a year later in his low-income neighborhood in Hagerstown.
Elected leaders throughout Maryland quickly recognized Altimont for the success story that he is. They attended the store’s grand opening and sent him plaudits and commendations. 1 The local news covered all the good work Altimont was doing in the community, 2 including the free meals that Carmen’s provided to those in need around the holidays. 3
The outpouring of public support reflected Altimont’s changed mindset following his release. Altimont graduated in the inaugural class of Knowledge Empowers You, a program which provides job training to former offenders. And he joined the local Rotary Club (alongside the judge who sentenced him), began working with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller’s Economic Advisory Forum, and now works to help other returning citizens reintegrate into society.
Despite the outpouring of support, Carmen’s Corner Store’s success faced two major roadblocks in its first year. Like many businesses, the pandemic forced Carmen’s to close temporarily. But unlike other businesses, Carmen’s was initially ineligible for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans because of Altimont’s criminal record. Altimont changed that though by successfully suing the Small Business Administration and forcing the agency to change its irrational restrictions.
The more persistent issue for Carmen’s has been that it can’t serve a substantial chunk of its customer base who rely on SNAP benefits to purchase their groceries. Census data shows that more than one-fifth of households in Carmen’s area depend on SNAP; 4 although, Altimont estimates that the percentage of Carmen’s customers that would use SNAP is significantly higher. Altimont applied for his Hagerstown store to be a SNAP retailer in the summer of 2019. But the USDA denied his application because of the drug and firearm offenses on his record.
In 2021, with ever-increasing community support, Altimont opened a second Carmen’s store—this one in Frederick, as part of the Downtown Frederick Partnership. 5 Once again, he applied to be a SNAP retailer so he can serve the low-income residents in his community. Like his first application, though, the USDA rejected his application and told him his new store is also permanently banned due to his past convictions.
Altimont has done his best to persevere despite the USDA’s irrational permanent ban. His crimes, though serious, are almost two decades old and did not involve theft, fraud, or anything else that would impugn his trustworthiness as a business owner. That’s why he teamed up with IJ to sue the USDA to end its permanent punishment of Altimont and his business.
Altimont’s Legal Claims
The USDA’s permanent ban of Carmen’s Corner Store is invalid for three main reasons.
First, the USDA denied Altimont’s application because it misinterpreted its own rules. Congress authorized the USDA to deny businesses based on their reputation and integrity. During the rulemaking process to decide how the USDA would evaluate a business’s integrity, the agency explained that it would focus on “fraudulent activity in … government programs, or in business-related activities in general,” because those offenses reflect a business’s ability to follow the rules of a government program. The final rule listed examples of such offenses, including fraud, embezzlement, and “consumer protection laws” or other similar laws “relating to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, controlled substances, and/or gaming licenses.”
At the time, everyone understood the last list of offenses referred to licensing offenses: businesses that violate the terms of their licenses to sell alcohol, tobacco, firearms, controlled substances, or gaming things like lottery tickets. But eventually, the USDA began to incorrectly apply the permanent ban to anyone who ever committed any offense that has anything to do with alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or controlled substances. The agency cannot use that improper interpretation of its rule to exclude business owners like Altimont who have never committed any offenses relating to government programs or consumer protection.
Second, if the USDA did enact a permanent ban that applied to every drug and alcohol offense, that rule would violate the scope of the power that Congress gave the agency. Congress instructed the USDA to administer SNAP in a way that furthers the program’s purpose of closing the grocery gap in impoverished areas. Although Congress permits the USDA to consider a business’s integrity, it did so only to the extent the agency has reason to believe that a store’s owner might cheat SNAP for their own personal gain. Bans on retailers must be related to the program and reflect the severity of the offense. The USDA’s current ban on all business owners who’ve ever in their life committed an offense relating to drugs, alcohol, or firearms exceeds the USDA’s statutory power.
Third, the USDA’s decision is arbitrary and capricious. Drug, alcohol, and firearm offenses that are completely unrelated to someone’s business—standing alone—don’t reflect on someone’s integrity as a business owner. And those offenses certainly don’t tell the government that someone will always and forever lack the reputation to participate in a government program. If the USDA had some reason to believe otherwise, it was required to explain itself during the rulemaking process. But the agency failed to do so. For that reason alone, the USDA’s permanent ban is invalid.
The Litigation Team
Altimont Mark Wilks is represented by Institute for Justice Attorneys Jared McClain and Andrew Ward.
The Institute for Justice
This case is part of the Institute for Justice’s broader fight against laws that keep re-entering citizens from earning an honest living. One in three Americans has a criminal record, and they need to be able to support themselves. Yet, nationwide, there are tens of thousands of laws that make it harder for people with criminal histories to take their first steps on the economic ladder. Thankfully, there is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that harsh restrictions like this aren’t working. Permanent punishment shouldn’t be the default. People change, and when they do, they deserve a fresh start.
Still, far too many of these permanent punishment laws remain on the books. IJ—a nonprofit, public-interest law firm—is the national law firm for liberty, and it is leading the charge against these laws on multiple fronts. In 2020, IJ won its challenge to a Pennsylvania law that required would-be cosmetologists to prove they had “good moral character” to work in skincare. IJ is also challenging a Virginia law that prevents people with convictions for any of 176 different “barrier” crimes from being substance-abuse counselors. And IJ has also sued over a California regulation barring people with felony convictions from working as fulltime firefighters—even though California teaches and uses those same people to fight wildfires while they are in prison.
IJ’s legislative team has also released the most up-to-date survey of occupational licensing barriers for people with criminal histories. Using ten criteria, the report grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their legal protections for people with criminal records seeking occupational licensure.
IJ’s legislative team has also developed a model “Collateral Consequences in Occupational Licensing Act” that:
- Ensures government can deny licenses and certifications only when convictions are directly related to the occupation;
- Places the burden on the government to explain why a person with a criminal conviction should be unable to work; and
- Allows potential licensees to ask the government at any time—including before investing in training—whether they will be disqualified because of their criminal records.