Key point. It is illegal for food stamp recipients to obtain free food from churches and other charities and then sell their food stamps to raise money for themselves. Churches that operate a food distribution program should be alert to this risk, and seek guidance from state and federal welfare agencies, and other charities, on steps that can be taken to mitigate it.
An Ohio court overturned a trial court's order banning an adult male who committed food stamp fraud from visiting food pantries.
An adult male (the "defendant") engaged in a scheme to use food stamps to buy groceries for others in exchange for cash payments. His scheme was uncovered, and a grand jury returned an indictment that charged him with 11 counts of the illegal use of food stamps in violation of state law. The defendant pleaded guilty to four counts in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining counts. The trial court accepted appellant's pleas and scheduled the matter for sentencing.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed the following punishments and sanctions: (1) restitution of $1,711.50; (2) community service; (3) 180-day jail sentence; (4) permanent "disqualification" for food stamps; and (5) an order that the defendant "not enter food pantries for assistance." The defendant appealed, claiming that the trial court erred by ordering that he be banned from entering food pantries in the future. He did not challenge the other punishments.
A state appeals court ruled that the ban on visiting food pantries could be overturned only if it was unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable, and it "reluctantly'' concluded that this test was met. It began its opinion by noting:
At the outset we wish to point out that we share the trial court's outrage about the events of this case. When asked at [a hearing before the trial court] how he fed his family, the defendant responded that he did not sell all of his food stamps and, in any event, visited food pantries to make up for the food that he did sell. At [another hearing] the trial court remarked: "And the food pantry folks kept saying that they couldn't keep anything on their shelves, because people that were getting food stamps were selling their food stamps, and then coming and taking all the food from them, and that the truly needy people couldn't get food … . What little food they had was all being taken because of people abusing food stamps."
The appeals court found the trial court's comments were "remarkably restrained in light of the extent to which the defendant's behavior deprived many others of local, charitable nutrition assistance." However, the appeals court concluded that the trial court's order to bar the defendant's future entry to food pantries was unreasonable. It concluded that the restriction was unlawful because it was overbroad:
The offense for which the defendant was convicted did not directly involve the local food pantry. The state cited no authority as precedent for this kind of restriction, nor have we found any such authority. To this extent, we agree the court's ruling is unreasonable … . We point out, however, that local charities may choose to exercise control over their premises, as all land owners are permitted to do, and deny the defendant access to the premises under the threat of a trespass violation … . In the end, the prohibition is purely a punitive sanction that does nothing to ensure future good behavior. We are aware of nothing that would prohibit a private charity from refusing to assist the defendant in response to his abuse of their beneficence.
What This Means For Churches
Nearly 50 million Americans rely on food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) to help pay for food. And, many churches operate food distribution ministries. Are there steps that these churches can take to ensure that beneficiaries are not obtaining food and then selling their food stamps to raise money for themselves? Such fraudulent practices are illegal, but they can and do occur. For recommendations on reducing the risk of fraud, churches that operate food pantries should consult with other churches in the community with similar programs, along with state and federal welfare agencies that oversee the food stamps program. State v. Chamblin, 59 N.E.3d 537 (Ohio 2016).