“County Lines” drug related offences and Covid -19

9th July 2020 Business Crime

During the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown period, general crime levels have been reported to decline, due to the restrictions of being outside and on travel, unless for essential purposes. There has however been increasing reports of “County Lines” drug dealing, whereby organised crime groups have continued with their business of supplying drugs across the country. It is clear that county lines dealing remains prevalent and the consequences of being charged with associated criminal offences are severe.

We discuss below what County Lines dealing is, how it has remained prominent during the Coronavirus pandemic and the potential implications for anyone charged with offences relating to County Lines drug dealing.

What is “County Lines”?

“County Lines” is a term used to describe organised crime group (OCG) networks, which are based in major cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The OCGs use dedicated mobile phone lines to distribute drugs and illegal substances across more rural areas and counties across the UK, via ‘runners’.

The mobile phone lines are used to take orders and conduct business. They are also used to advertise drugs for sale and for sending large volumes of text messages to drug users letting them know when and where they can purchase the drugs from.

Who are runners?

The OCGs need people to transport drugs and cash for them and often recruit ‘runners’ who are usually children and vulnerable adults, who may have mental health issues or drug addiction problems themselves. This allows OCGs and those higher up the chain to move cash and drugs, whilst detaching themselves personally from the supply of drugs and to avoid detection.

Runners are at times incentivised with items they may want or need and may also face coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and use of weapons against them to ensure they transport drugs and cash across the counties.

Once runners have been recruited they may travel miles away from their home towns to counties/coastal towns and rural communities to deliver drugs, collect cash and at times carry out enforcement on behalf of the OCG.

“County Lines” and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic

One would imagine that with the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, there would be a fall in numbers of drugs and illegal substances being transported across the country as people are forced to stay at home and transport links have reduced.

However, with traditional delivery methods of transportation reduced as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, OCGs have adapted to the recent times by changing their transportation methods. There have been reports that OCGs have been dressing runners as Key Workers or “Deliveroo” drivers to deliver drugs and illegal substances during the lockdown, both inside their own counties and outside. It therefore appears that OCGs and county lines drug dealing has continued to operate during the lockdown period, with new methods of preventing detection by law enforcement agencies.

In addition, with unemployment levels high, schools, colleges and services for vulnerable people being shut, it is becoming easier for OCGs to recruit and coerce vulnerable people and their families to transport drugs and money across the country. It is therefore likely that the pandemic has in fact increased county lines drug dealing. 

Consequences of being linked to County Lines

The Police and The National Crime Agency have long been able to access and analyse ‘burner’ pay as you go phones and smart phones when investigating and obtaining intelligence on OCGs. As a result, OCGs have traditionally turned to encrypted devices which allows them to communicate with one another in respect of drugs and other serious and organised crime without being detected by law enforcement agencies. In June 2020 it has widely been reported that law enforcement agencies are now able to decrypt encrypted devices to assist with the detection and prevention of crime. A huge increase in arrests and criminal prosecutions for drug related offences has followed.

The consequences of being caught with illegal drugs and large amounts of cash, in areas known to be run by County Lines are potentially severe depending upon the role held within the OCG and the type of criminal activity undertaken by the group.

Line operators and senior OCG members could face substantial sentences of imprisonment if they are caught and convicted following criminal proceedings. Runners and members at the lower end of the OCG could also face criminal proceedings if they are found to be in possession of illegal drugs and substances with the intention to supply. Criminal courts typically consider “county lines” dealing as an aggravating feature of a case and sentences are therefore likely to be more severe.

Robust legal representation at an early stage is essential if you face criminal allegations. JMW’s private criminal defence department have exceptional experience in dealing with some of the most serious organised crime conspiracies across the country. 

If you have been arrested or are currently under investigation for the possession or supply of drugs which relates to County Lines please contact us today on 0345 241 5305 or enquiries@jmw.co.uk

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Samhia Mati is a Solicitor located in Manchester in our Business Crime & Regulation department

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