(CN) - The government can't kick a small convenience store in Arizona out of the federal food stamp program because it would likely shutter the business, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell granted a temporary restraining order recently to Alfred and Shamirin Joseph, owners of Bubba's Drive Thru, located in a "poor neighborhood" in northwest Phoenix.
The government alleges that the couple trafficked about $55 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in 2008 and 2009, but it did not levy the charges until September 2013. SNAP rules required that the couple be kicked out of the program while the charges are hashed out, but the Josephs claim that such a punishment would be the end of Bubba's Drive Thru, since "most of the people who live in the area receive government assistance in some manner."
The Josephs also claim that they have no record or memory of the alleged trafficking.
"Plaintiffs assert without contradiction that they operate a very small store, accommodating only three or four customers at a time, that they earn only $26,000 annually from the store, and that loss of their SNAP qualifications will put them out of business in the next few weeks," Campbell wrote in an amended order signed Thursday. "They claim that they will be out of business before they can pursue any administrative or judicial review of the decision, and note that the law precludes them from recovering their losses if their disqualification ultimately is found to have been erroneous."
In an earlier filing, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix argued that "courts have determined that the government's interest in administering the SNAP program for the primary beneficiaries outweighs the interest of retailer participants in the program, who are only incidental beneficiaries."
Campbell nonetheless took the relatively rare step of granting the Josephs a temporary restraining order to keep them in the SNAP program while the charges are pending.
"First, a significant private interest - plaintiffs' livelihood - will be affected by this official action," Campbell wrote. "Second, the risk of erroneous deprivation is substantial given the age of the charges, the loss of memories and records in the interim, and the fact that plaintiffs were afforded not opportunity to be heard other than a written response required within ten days."
Campbell added that the "urgency" of the government's interest "is significantly undercut in this case by the fact that the defendants waited four or five years to bring the charges."
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