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Senator wants tougher penalties for trading EBT cards for guns, drugs

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Senate Republican from St. Johns County filed a proposal Thursday that would create tougher penalties, including a requirement to help feed the needy, for people found swapping state-issued food assistance benefits for firearms, drugs and non-approved food items.

The proposal (SB 218), filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, focuses on reducing trafficking involving Electronic Benefits Transfer "EBT" cards, formally known as food stamps.

The measure would prohibit people from trading the benefits from EBT cards for firearms, ammunition, explosives, controlled substances, cash or considerations other than eligible types of food.

The proposal would also make it a third-degree felony to possess two or more EBT cards that have been issued to other people and to attempt to sell one or more of the cards.

The penalty would also include a six-month mandatory sentence of community service spent with a non-profit that distributes food to the needy.

Channel 4's Chris Parenteau spoke with Senator Hutson about individuals who sell EBT cards for guns and drugs. 

"People are doing this outside the business world and within the confines of their own home. They are really defrauding government," Hutson said.

Hutson says that there are people missing out on benefits because some are receiving them, then trading them or selling them to get money for illegal activities.

"If there's people who need this money, but the pool is drying up because of people were being fraudulent and don't really need it, and are defrauding the government, then I want to make sure that we catch them," said Hutson.

Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, filed a similar measure (HB 105) last month in the House.

"If you are defrauding somebody, and it's not just the taxpayers, they are actually defrauding the people who are the good actors and need the benefits," said Smith.

The Department of Children and Families handles distribution of EBT cards. News4Jax asked a spokesperson for DCF about the bills and trafficking of EBT cards.

She responded with the following statement: "DCFs Office of Public Benefits Integrity is committed to working with our partners at the Division of Public Assistance Fraud and law enforcement to prevent, detect, and recover waste, fraud and abuse within the public assistance programs."

Smith is also proposing new penalties for people caught trafficking the benefit cards.

"They would have to, as part of their punishment, help the needy. It's going to be one of those thing where we say that not only going to punish you, but we are going to use this as a life lesson and bring in these people to help the needy that these things are supposed to help in the first place," Smith said.

In 2013, the Legislature approved a law that prohibited EBT cards from being used at strip clubs, liquor stores and gambling establishments.

During the 2013 session, several Democrats called the Republican-backed proposal political posturing, noting that the state Department of Children and Families already had the ability to shut off EBT cards from being used at such facilities.