SNAPping Back at the USDA

Andrew Ward
Andrew Ward  ·  September 25, 2023

In 2018, IJ launched our first “fresh start” case: a challenge to a law that unfairly bars people from working because of their criminal histories. We won that case in 2020. But IJ never goes for one-hit wonders. We build campaigns around our cases and keep up the drumbeat for as long as it takes. Now, less than five years later, we’ve brought our fifth case about second chances.

Altimont Wilks will be the first to tell you: He used to be a drug dealer. In 2004, he was caught with a gun and drugs. He went to prison. But he came out a changed man. Today, he’s a pillar of his Hagerstown, Maryland, community—not just an exemplar, according to state leaders, but even a member of the Rotary Club alongside the judge who sentenced him.

He’s also an entrepreneur. In 2019, Altimont opened a corner store, hoping to offer groceries to a community with few other options. He named the store Carmen’s after his mother. Two years later, he opened a second location in nearby Frederick.

But Carmen’s is struggling. Altimont wants to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would allow low-income customers to pay with what used to be called food stamps. But Carmen’s can’t accept SNAP benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program, imposes a “business integrity” rule that bars a business if it’s owned by anyone who was ever convicted of any crime related to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, firearms, or gambling. In other words, the government has decided that Altimont will always be the man he was 19 years ago.

Watch the case video here!

In Hagerstown, where one in five households depends on SNAP, that’s bad for Carmen’s would-be customers—the very people SNAP is meant to help. And it’s bad for Altimont. Regardless of the wisdom of SNAP as a federal policy, Altimont should still be allowed to compete on a level playing field with other businesses. Instead, he’s excluded from much of the market. It’s tough to compete when your competitors can access significantly more customers.

But Altimont isn’t one to take an injustice like that lying down. Nineteen years ago, he was taken into Baltimore’s federal courthouse as a prisoner. This past August, he entered that same building as a plaintiff. With IJ’s help, he’s suing the USDA to end its lifetime ban.

The law is on his side. For one, the USDA’s policy is plain made up. Two federal courts have already decided that the actual written rule doesn’t allow this sort of disqualification. More important, the policy is what administrative lawyers call “arbitrary and capricious” and what normal people just call “nuts.” It makes no sense to ban people for decades-old crimes that have nothing to do with SNAP, especially when stores that actually break the program’s rules enjoy more lenient punishments.

These senseless lifetime bans are bad for communities, and they’re bad for business. IJ is happy to join the fight a fifth time—and we look forward to number six.

Andrew Ward is an IJ attorney.

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