Dan King
Dan King · August 1, 2023

BALTIMORE—Today, a Maryland small business owner filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), challenging a policy that permanently prevents him from accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as payment at his corner store because of his convictions for drug and firearms possession from 19 years ago. Altimont Mark Wilks, the owner of Carmen’s Corner Store, teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to bring the lawsuit. 

“Banning someone from participating in a program because of a past mistake that has absolutely nothing to do with their business is irrational,” said IJ Attorney Jared McClain. “Altimont is proof that people can change. He served his time and turned his life around – the government shouldn’t deny him a fresh start.” 

Altimont’s story is one of redemption. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he joined a gang as a teenager. In 2004, after he moved to western Maryland, he was arrested for selling drugs across the border with Pennsylvania. Because the drugs moved across state lines, he faced federal and state charges. Altimont went to prison for charges relating to drug trafficking and possessing a firearm, until he was released in June 2018. 

After his release, Altimont turned his life around. He began working as a delivery driver for FedEx, joined his local Rotary Club, and graduated from a job training program for formerly incarcerated people called “Knowledge Empowers You.” 

Eventually Altimont saved up enough money to open Carmen’s Corner Store, which he named after his mother, who helped him get back on his feet. Altimont not only saw this as an opportunity to provide for himself, but also as a way to help his community. Carmen’s original location is in a low-income neighborhood within Hagerstown, where more than 20 percent of households depend on SNAP to buy groceries. However, when Altimont applied to accept SNAP payments at Carmen’s in 2019, he was rejected because of his previous convictions. The USDA says anyone with any prior alcohol, drug, tobacco, or firearm offense lacks the “business integrity” to accept SNAP as payment. 

“I’ve made mistakes in my past, but I’m a different man now, and I shouldn’t continue to be punished for those mistakes,” said Altimont. “Preventing me from accepting SNAP not only hurts my business, it also hurts poorer people in my community by making it harder for them to find a place to buy groceries.” 

In 2021, following an outpouring of support from the community, Altimont opened a second Carmen’s store in Frederick, Maryland. Once again, the USDA denied his application to become a SNAP retailer. The new lawsuit is an appeal of that denial. 

“The USDA’s permanent punishment of Altimont and others like him is irrational,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “The agency punishes people like Altimont more harshly than it punishes business owners who have actually defrauded the SNAP program.” 

In addition to his hard work in the business world, Altimont has received praise from elected officials and community leaders for giving back to the community. Around the holidays, Carmen’s donates free meals to people in need. Additionally, Altimont works with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller’s Economic Advisory Forum to help people reintegrate into society when they’re released from prison. 

This lawsuit is part of IJ’s fight against similar laws that prevent returning citizens from earning an honest living when they are released from prison. In 2020, IJ won a case on behalf of two Philadelphia-area women who were prevented from working in cosmetology because of old, unrelated crimes. IJ also fought against a California law that barred a formerly incarcerated man from working as a fulltime firefighter, even though he fought fires while incarcerated. IJ is currently challenging a Virginia law that is preventing an aspiring substance abuse counselor from working in that field because of a decades-old offense.