HAGERSTOWN, Md.—On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to allow Maryland business owner Altimont Mark Wilks to reapply to become a certified Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) retailer at his Hagerstown and Frederick corner stores. The USDA permanently banned him from ever accepting SNAP benefits as payment at his stores, because of an unrelated, decades-old drug crime, for which he already served his time. The agreement comes four months after Altimont joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge the ban.
“I’m so excited that I can reapply to become a SNAP retailer at both of my stores,” said Altimont. “So many customers in my community rely on SNAP to buy their groceries, and I want to be able to provide them with a local option.”
In addition to allowing Altimont to reapply to become a SNAP retailer, the USDA has agreed to change how it applies its “Business Integrity Rule” going forward. Business owners with drug convictions unrelated to their business are no longer barred from receiving SNAP payments at their businesses. The agency also admitted that the way it applied the Business Integrity Rule to Altimont was contrary to a federal court’s decision from 2019. A federal judge in Oregon had already ruled that the USDA could not apply the Business Integrity Rule to convictions for selling drugs, but the agency had continued to do so anyway.
“The USDA’s interpretation of its Business Integrity Rule was always irrational and misguided, and we’re glad the agency has finally done what it should have years ago,” said IJ Attorney Jared McClain. “Permanently punishing someone for an old mistake that has nothing to do with their business hurts people who are trying to turn their lives around and does nothing to preserve public safety.”
In 2004, Altimont was arrested for crossing the Maryland state line to sell drugs across the border in Pennsylvania. Altimont went to prison for charges relating to drug trafficking and possessing a firearm.
After his release in June 2018, 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 the store as an opportunity to provide for himself, but also as a way to help his community. Carmen’s first 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 drug-related convictions. The USDA said that anyone with any prior alcohol, drug, tobacco, or firearm offense lacks the “business integrity” to accept SNAP payments.
“Altimont is living proof that people can turn their lives around for the better,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “The government should be making it easier for returning citizens to get back on their feet, not continuing to punish them.”
“This settlement isn’t just a win for Altimont; it’s a win for any returning citizen who wants to open a business on an even playing field with every other business owner,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock.
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.