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United States v. Jeffs

United States District Court, D. Utah

August 23, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
LYLE STEED JEFFS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR JURY INSTRUCTION REGARDING PERMISSIBLE USE OF SNAP BENEFITS

          TED STEWART UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the government's Motion for Jury Instruction Regarding Permissible Use of SNAP Benefits. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Motion in part and deny it in part. The Court agrees that it must instruct the jury on the permissible use of SNAP benefits, but will not use the government's proposed jury instruction.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant is charged with, among other things, conspiring to violate 7 U.S.C. § 2024(b) and (c). These provisions make it unlawful to knowingly use, transfer, acquire, alter, or possess SNAP benefits “in any manner contrary to this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter”[1] or to present, or cause to be presented, SNAP benefits for payment or redemption “knowing the same to have been received, transferred, or used in any manner in violation of the provisions of this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter.”[2]

         The government previously moved in limine for “a ruling that would preclude the defendants from raising [the] argument that donation of their benefits was allowed or authorized by the law, and ruling that the jury should be instructed that the laws and regulations preclude the donation of SNAP benefits.”[3] The government requested the Court make “a legal determination of what the law is, and then [allow] the parties [to] present evidence in the framework of the Court's instructions about the law.”[4]

         The Court rejected the government's request as overbroad. The Court identified two primary reasons for its denial. First, the Court believed that granting the government's request would implicate issues that are solely within the province of the jury. Second, the Court was concerned that exclusion of such evidence would interfere with Defendant's ability to argue that any violation was not done knowingly. The Court left open the possibility for the government to file a more narrowly tailored pretrial motion addressing the government's concern that such evidence would encroach on the role of either the jury or the Court. The government has now filed the instant Motion.

         The government moves the Court to instruct the jury regarding the legal authorities governing the permissible use of SNAP benefits. Specifically, the government urges the Court to instruct the jury “that SNAP benefits must be used only by the authorized household to purchase eligible food for that household and that any other use of SNAP benefits, including the donation of benefits, is not authorized.”[5]

         II. DISCUSSION

         The government first argues that, because the Court is the sole arbiter of the law, it must determine the meaning of the SNAP statutes and regulations and instruct the jury accordingly. The Court agrees. “[I]t is axiomatic that the judge is the sole arbiter of the law and its applicability.”[6] The Court has no intention of abandoning its duty to instruct the jury on the law and will not allow evidence or argument that would encroach on this role. The question of what is permitted by the SNAP statutes and regulations is a question of law. The Court will make that determination and will instruct the jury accordingly.

         By so ruling, the Court does not intend to exclude all evidence concerning the permissible use of SNAP benefits. Federal Rule of Evidence 704(a) provides that “[a]n opinion is not objectionable just because it embraces an ultimate issue.” The Tenth Circuit recognizes “that a witness may refer to the law in expressing an opinion without that reference rendering the testimony inadmissible. Indeed, a witness may properly be called upon to aid the jury in understanding the facts in evidence even though reference to those facts is couched in legal terms.”[7] Thus, it is possible that either party could permissibly present expert testimony that touches on the authorized use of SNAP benefits. The Court need not decide in this Order the extent to which such testimony would be allowed. The Court will, however, exclude evidence that would seek to instruct the jury as to the law.[8] This result protects the functions of the Court and the jury while allowing the parties a full opportunity to present their cases.

         The real question presented by the government's Motion is what the SNAP statutes and regulations allow. The government argues that SNAP benefits must be used only by the authorized household to purchase eligible food for that household and that any other use of SNAP benefits, including donation, is not authorized. The government's proposed jury instruction is as follows:

SNAP benefits must be used only by the authorized household to purchase eligible food for that household. It is contrary to the law and USDA regulations for anyone to use them for any other purpose. The SNAP statutes and regulations need not specifically identify every prohibited use of SNAP benefits. Instead, it is sufficient for the statutes and regulations to identify the purposes for which SNAP benefits may be used. All other uses of SNAP benefits, including the donation of benefits, are not authorized.[9]

         The parties focus their arguments on the donation of SNAP benefits and the Court will do the same. The Superseding Indictment contains allegations that Defendant conspired to violate the SNAP statutes in two primary ways: by directing FLDS members to divert their SNAP benefits directly without the exchange of food products and by directing members to donate food items purchased with SNAP benefits.[10] It is unclear whether the government's proposed instruction is directed to both types of conduct, but the Court will assume that it is.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the donation of SNAP benefits (i.e., the funds provided to a household on an EBT card)[11] without the exchange of food products is prohibited by statute and regulations. SNAP benefits may only be used by the household to purchase eligible food for the household. Thus, the funds placed on the EBT card must be used to purchase eligible food for the household and any other use of those funds, including donation, is prohibited. However, there is no statute or regulation that would prohibit the donation of food items obtained through the use of SNAP benefits.

         As stated, Section 2024(b) makes it unlawful to knowingly use, transfer, acquire, alter, or possess SNAP benefits “in any manner contrary to this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter” and § 2024(c) makes it unlawful to present, or cause to be presented, SNAP benefits for payment or redemption “knowing the same to have been received, transferred, or used in any manner in violation of the provisions of this chapter or the regulations issued pursuant to this chapter.” The law and regulations state that SNAP benefits may only be used by eligible individuals to purchase eligible food for that household.[12] From these provisions, it is clear that SNAP benefits must be used to purchase eligible food for the household. Other uses of the benefits, including the donation of benefits without an exchange of food, are not permitted. Thus, the jury may be instructed that the donation of benefits without the exchange of food items is contrary to law.[13] However, the Court cannot conclude, based on those authorities, that the donation of food obtained through the use of SNAP benefits is not permitted. Thus, the Court cannot agree with the government's instruction as written.

         The government argues that its instruction is based on its interpretation of the plain language of the statutes and regulations. However, the government points to no specific statutes or regulations that prohibit the donation of food obtained through the use of SNAP benefits. Other conduct-such as selling SNAP benefits for cash, using benefits to purchase unauthorized items, purchasing products originally purchased with SNAP benefits in exchange for cash or consideration other than eligible food-has been specifically set out by regulation as being prohibited.[14]

         The regulations defining trafficking are particularly instructive. Those regulations set out very specific, and limited, conduct that is prohibited post-purchase. For example, the regulations prohibit purchasing a product with SNAP benefits that has a container requiring a return deposit, discarding the product, and returning the container for the deposit amount.[15] These regulations demonstrate that the USDA knows how to detail specific conduct that is not permitted. The fact that there is no similar statute ...


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