Definition of Welfare Fraud
In Florida, “welfare fraud” is a generic term to describe a broad range of fraudulent conduct aimed at illegally receiving, retaining, misappropriating, seeking, or using state and federal public assistance, services, or benefits. As outlined in Section 414.39, Florida Statutes, welfare fraud can take a variety of forms, each with its own factual components and proof requirements. The most commonly prosecuted Welfare Fraud crimes are discussed below.
Welfare Fraud- Failure to Disclose a Material Fact
Welfare fraud that occurs through the non-disclosure of a material fact is described in Section 414.39(1)(a), Florida Statutes. To prove the offense at trial, the State of Florida must establish the following three elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) The defendant knowingly failed to disclose a material fact by false statement, misrepresentation,, impersonation or other fraudulent means; (2) the fact was used to determine qualifications to receive aid or benefits; and (3) the aid or benefits came from a state or federally funded assistance program.
Welfare Fraud- Aiding or Abetting
Aiding or Abetting welfare fraud occurs where a defendant: (1) knowingly aids or abets another person in failing to disclose (i) a change in circumstances in order to obtain or continue to receive aid or benefits to which he or she is not entitled, or (ii) a material fact by false statement, misrepresentation, impersonation, or other fraudulent means, and the fact was used to determine qualifications to receive aid or benefits; and (2) the other person received benefits to which he/she was not entitled; and (3) the aid or benefits came from state or federally funded assistance program. “Aid or abet” means to help, assist, or to facilitate. See Section 414.39(1)(c), Florida Statutes.
Welfare Fraud- Change in Circumstances
Under Section 414.39(1)(a), Florida Statutes, welfare fraud can also occur where there is a knowing failure to disclose a “change in circumstances” in order to obtain public benefits or services. To prove this type of fraud, the State of Florida must establish to the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) the defendant knowingly failed to disclose a change in circumstances to obtain or to continue to receive aid or benefits to which he or she was not entitled; and (2) the aid or benefits came from a state or federally funded assistance program.
Welfare Fraud- Food Stamps and Medical Services
Welfare fraud that concerns food stamps and medical services is contained within Section 414.39(2), Florida Statutes. Under the law, the State of Florida must prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The defendant knowingly: (i) used, transferred, acquired, trafficked, altered, forged, or possessed, or (ii) attempted to use, traffic, alter, force, or possess, or (iii) aided and abetted another person to use, transfer, acquire, traffic, alter, forge, or possess a “food stamp, food stamp identification card, authorization for the purchase of food stamps, a certificate of eligibility for medical services, or a Medicaid identification card; and
- The use, transfer, acquisition, traffic, alteration, forgery, or possession was not authorized by law.
The term “fraudulent” means the intent or purpose of suppressing the truth or perpetuating a deception. “Knowingly” means an act done voluntarily and intentionally and not because of mistake or accident or other innocent reason. It is not a defense to the charge that the defendant repaid the assistance or services obtained.
Penalties for Welfare Fraud
As referenced above, welfare fraud in Florida may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the amount of benefits or value of services received or obtained. Where the value of the public assistance or identification wrongfully received, retained, misappropriated, sought, or used is less than an aggregate value of $200 in any 12 consecutive months, the offense is a first degree misdemeanor, with penalties of up to one year in jail or 12 months of probation, and a $1,000 fine. Restitution may also be ordered as a condition of probation or other sentence. Where the value of the public assistance is of an aggregate value of $200 or more in any 12 consecutive months, the offense is upgraded to a third degree felony, with penalties of up to five years in prison or five years of probation, and a $10,000 fine.
Defenses to Welfare Fraud
Because of the elements of knowledge and fraudulent purpose (i.e. intent), there are numerous defenses available to contest a charge of Welfare Fraud in Florida. Some of the more common defenses raised in Florida criminal prosecutions include the following:
- Did the defendant knowingly fail to disclose a material fact or change in circumstances?
- If there was a “knowing” non-disclosure, was the information “material,” or was it to obtain or continue to receive benefits?
- Does the case involve mistake, inadvertence, negligence or other state of mind not rising to level of fraud?
- If there is a failure to disclose, was the fact used to determine qualifications or eligibility?
- Was the program state or federally funded?
- Can the State of Florida prove that the alleged statement was false, or that a change in circumstances occurred?
- Can the State of Florida prove that a non-disclosed fact or change in circumstances was actually used to determine benefits or used to obtain aid or benefits?
- Are there other innocent explanations for the accused’s conduct?
- Did law enforcement obtain evidence against the accused through an unlawful search or seizure?
Even where there are no viable defenses available, Welfare Fraud can often be reduced or the penalties mitigated through skillful negotiation with the Office of the State Attorney. This frequently occurs in cases involving first-time offenders, or where a non-jail sentence will facilitate the payment of restitution. Representation by an attorney in a Welfare Fraud cases is critical, and can often mean the difference between prison and freedom.
If you have been accused of Welfare Fraud in Palm Beach County, Florida, you may have defenses available to contest the charge or to minimize potential penalties. Contact our West Palm Beach Welfare Fraud Defense Lawyer today for a free consultation.