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Drug Offences Articles

A guide to County Lines drug offences

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If you have been accused of a county lines drug offence, it is likely that you are feeling afraid – both of the criminal justice system, and (if you were unlucky enough to get caught up in gang activity) of repercussions within the criminal network in which you have been alleged to be operating. This article explains what county lines offences are and how they work. It explores which drugs are most prevalent in county lines offences. It also looks at the kind of sentence that you could face if you are convicted.

What does the phrase ‘county lines’ mean?

According to the National Crime Agency, county lines is where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another. It refers to the crossing of police and local authority boundaries. It is usually gangs and organised criminal networks who are responsible for organising the movement of drugs. The drugs are sold through a dedicated mobile phone line or other form of deal line. There are over 2000 individual deal lines, and approximately 1000 branded county lines known to exist in England and Wales.

County lines offenders use mass marketing text messages to advertise their wares, sending their clientele a menu of which drugs are available, their cost, and any special promotions. They will also offer free samples to buyers in exchange for the contact details of acquaintances who may be interested in buying drugs. In this way, criminal networks and gangs operating in urban centres move drugs out to smaller towns and rural areas. However, the individuals who actually move and store the drugs and money are often children or vulnerable people who are forced into it by gangs.

How are drugs transported through county lines?

Children and young vulnerable adults are often used as a means for transporting the drugs by gangs. Gangs are especially likely to target individuals with mental health issues or addiction problems to be their drug runners. It is believed that the majority of drugs runners are between the ages of 15 and 17 years old, however it could be that the government is simply more aware of drug runners within this age group due to the greater level of interaction that they have with authorities, such as social services, in comparison with adults. Often the children who are targeted to be runners are in care, and/or have been excluded from school.

Gangs choose these individuals to be drug runners in order to stay under the radar of law enforcement. To ensure the compliance of their runners, gang members will use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence), and weapons. Often they will prey upon marginalised and vulnerable people who seem to be easy targets, and who are attracted by the sense of belonging offered by gang activity. As well as coercing drug runners, gangs incentivise their cooperation by offering payments and material possessions that they would be unable to obtain through legal means.

Another tactic used by gangs is to create a debt by offering drugs to a drug addict. Sometimes drug addicts will be identified by gang members through observing who attends pharmacies to collect prescription medication, such as methadone. Female drug runners are often recruited by male gang members who serenade them with supposedly romantic gifts, creating the impression that they are in a relationship with them. Where drugs runners want to leave the business, threats of kidnap, serious violence, and sexual abuse have been known to be used against them. In addition, gangs have been known to stage a robbery against their runner, then blame them for the loss, in order to ramp up the debt owed to them, and ensure the runner’s compliance.

Drug runners will be moved by gangs to the area of operation. Consequently, drug runners may find themselves operating a long way from home, under conditions of having been trafficked i.e. forced to move against their will. The drug runners then often move around within the areas by public transport such as the rail network, as many are too young to drive. Others drive in private vehicles using cloned number plates to avoid detection by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. The use of taxi hire apps such as Uber is believed to have become increasingly popular amongst drug runners in recent years. To move the drugs, drug runners are often forced to carry them internally (known as ‘plugging’) to avoid detection by law enforcement.

County lines drug deals usually involve the movement of drugs from urban areas into smaller towns or rural areas. County lines offending happens throughout the UK but the urban areas in which it is most prevalent in the areas covered by the Metropolitan Police Service (i.e. London), the West Midlands, and Merseyside. In the target area, gangs sometimes take over the home of a drug runner and using this as a base to operate from (this practice is also known as ‘cuckooing’). They will often send children from the urban area in which they operate to take over these properties, forcing them to move from their home into the ‘cuckooed’ property.

What are the main two drugs involved with county lines?

According to the NCA, the two drugs most commonly supplied through county lines are crack cocaine and heroin. Because of the highly addictive nature of these drugs, they guarantee a returning client base. Other drugs such as powder cocaine and cannabis are also moved through county lines drug dealing. However, these are believed to be secondary, with most of the profit being made selling heroin and crack cocaine.

What is the punishment for county lines drug offences?

The punishment for county lines drug offences will vary greatly depending on the type of drug involved, the quantity, and your role in the supply of it. The three offences which are mostly likely to be involved in county lines drug deals are possession, supply, and possession with intent to supply, pursuant to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Heroin and crack cocaine, the drugs most commonly involved in county lines offences, are both Class A drugs. The maximum sentence for possession of Class A drugs is seven years custody, an unlimited fine, or both. Meanwhile, the maximum sentence for supply or possession with intent to supply is a life sentence, an unlimited fine, or both.

When determining the sentence, the court will consider the culpability of the offender. Culpability measures the offender’s role in the offence. Drug runners, especially those who are vulnerable or children, will be looked upon more leniently by the courts in comparison to the gang members who control them. The court will also look at the harm caused by the offence. For drug offences, harm is chiefly measured through looking at the quantity of the drug that is being supplied.

In addition, the court will consider whether any aggravating factors are present. Playing a leading offender role in a county lines offence would be considered to be an aggravating factor. If the drugs were of high purity, or were cut with harmful substances, these would also be considered to be aggravating factors. If there is evidence of the harm caused by the drugs in the community, this will also be considered to be an aggravating factor.

Mitigating factors that will be taken into consideration by the court include a lack of maturity of the part of the defendant and the presence of mental disorders or learning disabilities. Also, good character, a show of remorse, and the absence of previous convictions will assist a plea in mitigation.

For example, an offender who played a leading role in the supply of 1kg of heroin would be looking at a starting point of an 11 year custodial sentence. If it was a county lines offence where he had exploited a vulnerable young person to be the drug runner, this would be an aggravating factor which could increase the sentence up to 13 years’ custody.

By contrast, an offender who played a lesser role in the same drug deal, and who was an 18 year old heroin addict who had to been exploited by the gang to be a drug runner would have a starting point of five years’ custody. Their mental vulnerability and immaturity would be mitigating factors that could reduce their culpability down to the lowest possible custodial sentence of three years and six months.

For more information on the sentencing guidelines for drug offences, refer to the Sentencing Council’s guidance.

Where to get further help

If you have been accused of a county lines offence, make sure you get the best possible legal representation. Stuart Miller Solicitors are the criminal defence solicitors firm that you are looking for. We have represented many defendants accused of county lines offences, and we have secured some fantastic outcomes from acquittals to vastly reduced sentences due to mitigating factors that we have put forward. Our friendly and professional team of solicitors will help ensure that your voice is heard in the system. Contact us today!

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