County Lines Offending
- Types of County Lines Activity
- Possible Offences
- Other Powers
- Charging Issues
- The Police Approach
- The CPS Approach
This sets out the CPS approach to 'county lines' offending, including the safeguarding of vulnerable persons, and the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.
As ‘county lines’ offending covers a range of offences, this should be read alongside relevant police and CPS guidance, including the guidance on Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Smuggling (‘MSHT’)and the guidance on Decision Making in ‘Gang’ Related Offending.
The Government’s definition of ‘county lines’ is provided by the Serious Violence Strategy (2018):
“…a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas (within the UK), using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) or weapons.”
A common feature of ‘county lines’ is the exploitation of children and young people. The Strategy also provides a definition of child criminal exploitation as:
“…where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into any criminal activity:
- In exchange for something the victim needs or wants; and/or
- For the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator; and/or
- Through violence or the threat of violence.
The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact. It can also occur through the use of technology.”
The National Crime Agency (NCA) and police have identified that city-based drug networks are extending their drug dealing activity into new areas, many of which are coastal and market towns. The organised networks recruit vulnerable people, often children, or those addicted to drugs to act as couriers and to sell drugs. The drugs networks are likely to use the homes of vulnerable persons as a base from which they can supply drugs. Often payment for this will be drugs. The National County Lines Coordination Centre’s (NCLCC) County Lines Strategic Assessment 2020 / 21 provides detail about the evolving nature of the county lines business model.
County lines operates by criminal networks from urban areas (in particular, London, the West Midlands and Merseyside) introducing a telephone number in a new area to sell drugs directly at street level. Potential buyers telephone a number which will have been used to send advertising texts and local runners are dispatched to make deliveries via a telephone 'relay or exchange' system. The 'runners' are invariably children, often boys aged 14 – 17 years, who are groomed with the promise of money and gifts and deployed or forced to carry out day to day dealing. Runaway and missing children are also used by the networks to expand inner city drugs operations into county towns. Children as young as 11 years of age have been reported as being recruited by these highly organised networks. See guidance about Youth Offenders.
‘County lines’ activity may involve the ‘plugging’ of drugs to conceal without detection. ‘Plugging’ is a term used to describe the internal secretion of a package of drugs inside a bodily orifice. Drugs are usually concealed within a condom, or similarly effective packaging and placed inside the rectum using lubricant. Vaginal plugging can also occur. Plugged packages usually contain drugs which are individually wrapped, and quantities can be recovered with in excess of 100 wraps inside. A superintendent’s custody extension can detain a person suspected of plugging drugs for an additional period of 92 hours. The court must issue a warrant of further detention for anything thereafter post charge, under section 152 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This does not apply where a charge is brought against a person under 17 years of age, (section 152(2) Criminal Justice Act 1988).
‘County lines’ networks may use violence and coercion to occupy the property of someone who is often vulnerable through mental health, domestic circumstances, substance misuse or manipulation. The property is used by the network to cut and store drugs and despatch drug runners to perform a deal. The drug runners are often children who have been reported as ‘missing’. The running of the drug operation is typically overseen by a ‘manager’ who manages the ‘workforce’ at this property. The ‘manager’ will be in receipt of phone calls from the ‘line holder’ who will give instructions on the drug deal, quantity, drug type, location etc. Notably, the occupier of the cuckooed address can be a victim of violence, coercion and even Modern Slavery, however there can be instances where the drug user is also being paid in drugs for the use of their property. Victimhood of cuckooed property occupants is variable and a full investigation of the circumstances of that occupier should be carried out by police and partner agencies.
Debt bondage may be used by offenders when carrying out ‘county lines’ activity. A real or perceived debt is used as a method to exert control over individuals, to recruit and / or ensure they continue working for the ‘county lines’ network. Those held in debt bondage may be made to run or deal drugs to ‘repay’ the debt or in some cases provide the use of their properties for the preparation and / or dealing of drugs. ‘Debts’ can be incurred in a number of ways including:
- provision of food, drugs, accommodation or other items the individual believes are gifts but which they are then expected to repay the cost of;
- staged robberies against those holding or running drugs who are then held responsible for the loss;
- the seizure of drugs and / or money by police upon arrest can result in the arrested individual being held responsible for the debt caused by the loss;
- assumption of debt incurred by a friend or family member.
The wide range of criminal activity associated with county lines means that police and prosecutors, on a case by case basis, can consider different legislation which fully reflects the criminal conduct and gives courts sufficient sentencing powers – not just prison sentences, but ancillary orders and asset seizure to disrupt future criminal enterprises. The following summarises some of the legislation which may be of relevance in connection with county lines activity.
The principal offences relating to the misuse of controlled drugs are contained in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (‘MDA). This covers a range of offences including those dealing with possession; supply; and production. Section 170 of the Customs and Excise Act 1979 concerns the importation (and exportation) of a controlled drug. Further information is set out in the Drug Offences guidance.
‘County lines’ activity often involves the use of weapons to inflict serious assaults on potential competition. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 may be appropriate in connection with ‘county lines’ activity, as they provide offences involving offensive weapons and articles which have a blade or is sharply pointed. Further information can be found in the Offence Weapons Guidance.
Firearms are sometimes used in connection with ‘county lines’ activity. The Firearms Act 1968 provides a range of offences concerning firearms, shotguns and specific types of weapons, their component parts and ammunition. See Firearms guidance.
‘County lines’ activity may involve offences which constitute sexual violence, particularly, but not exclusively against women and girls. Individuals who have entered into relationships with ‘county lines’ network members are often controlled, coerced and subject to domestic abuse. They may also be sexually assaulted or threatened with sexual assault and exploited for sexual favours in payment for drugs. They may also be used against their will to initiate younger males into the county lines network through sexual activity. The principal offences relating to Violence against Women and Girls are contained in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
There may be cases where, properly directed and evidenced, an offence under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘MSA’) can be considered. See also the CPS Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking (‘MSHT’) legal guidance.
‘County lines’ activity may involve acts of encouraging or assisting an offence. Sections 44-46 Serious Crime Act 2007 provides for three inchoate offences of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence; encouraging or assisting an offence believing it will be committed; and encouraging or assisting offences believing one or more will be committed.
‘County Lines’ may also involve the offence of conspiracy; the commission of an act by one or more parties, (section 1 Criminal Law Act 1977).
The CPS is not an applicant for gang injunctions but should be consulted to discuss any potential parallel criminal proceedings. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (‘PCA’) contains provisions for injunctions to prevent gang‑related violence and gang-related drug dealing activity to be sought against an individual. Gang injunctions allow courts to place a range of prohibitions and requirements on the behaviour and activities of a person involved in gang-related violence. These conditions could include prohibiting someone from being in a particular place or requiring them to participate in rehabilitative activities. Police and local authorities have the power to apply to the courts for the injunctions. Gang injunctions are a valuable tool in preventing gang-related violence alongside a range of other prevention, detection and enforcement measures.
- For the purposes of this section, something is "gang-related" if it occurs in the course of, or is otherwise related to, the activities of a group that:
- consists of at least three people, and
- has one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group.
- In this section "violence" includes a threat of violence.
- In this Part "drug-dealing activity" means the unlawful production, supply, importation or exportation of a controlled drug.
The nature and form of gang-related violence varies significantly and is not easily captured by a single definition. The wording of the statutory definition is intentionally broad and wide-ranging to ensure that gang injunctions can be used effectively in response to the gangs encountered in local areas.
Section 34 PCA, as amended, states that a court can grant a gang injunction if two 'conditions' are met (the onus will be on the applicant authority to demonstrate that these two conditions are met). These conditions are:
- the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has engaged in, or has encouraged or assisted:
- gang-related violence, or
- gang-related drug-dealing activity.
- the court thinks it is necessary to grant the injunction for either or both of the following purposes:
- to prevent the respondent from engaging in, or encouraging or assisting, gang-related violence or gang-related drug-dealing activity;
- to protect the respondent from gang-related violence or gang-related drug-dealing activity.
See also the guidance Decision making in ‘gang’ related offences.
See the CPS MSHT legal guidance including links to examples of STRO and STPOs. See also Home Office Guidance on Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders and Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders under Part 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The CPS is not an applicant for a Civil Injunction.
Part 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 contains the Civil Injunction, which can be used to tackle gang related activity, either directly on gang members or on those being exploited by gangs in order to disrupt their operations. A Civil Injunction can be particularly useful in connection with ‘county lines’ activity, where the conditions of the injunction can include prohibitions on entering certain areas or affiliating with certain individuals, (see Anti-social behaviour powers: Statutory Guidance for frontline professionals). They could also include positive requirements such as engaging in drug treatment if the reason they became involved with, and remain indebted to, the gang is because of drug dependency.
The CPS is not an applicant for a Closure Order.
Part 4 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 also provides for Closure Powers, which the police and local authority may use to close premises quickly which are being used, or likely to be used, to commit nuisance or disorder. (See Anti-social behaviour powers: Statutory Guidance for frontline professionals).
The CPS is not an applicant for a DDTRO.
The DDTRO powers enable the closure of anonymous phone lines known to be used for dealing drugs. The Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders (DDTRO) Regulations 2017 enable the police and NCA to apply directly to the civil courts for a court order to compel mobile network operators to close down mobile phone lines and / or handsets used in drug dealing.
In England and Wales there are six designated courts that can hear DDTRO applications: Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (London), Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester.
The ‘County Line’ Deal Phone (the phone used by the drug networks to manage their distribution and supply and deal drugs to the end user) is essential to the ‘county lines’ business model, (see section 2 NCLCC County Lines Strategic Assessment 2020 / 21). Where it is possible to link an individual to a county line deal phone, and there is sufficient evidence, the criminal prosecution option should be pursued. However, a number of factors, particularly the anonymity of the phone line, make it challenging to achieve prosecutions against an individual for activity on the line.
Prosecutors should consider asset recovery in every case in which a defendant has benefited from criminal conduct and should instigate confiscation proceedings in appropriate cases. When confiscation is not appropriate and / or cost effective, consideration should be given to alternative asset recovery outcomes.
For further information, please see Proceeds of Crime guidance.
The effective intervention by local multi-agency collaborations is essential to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults and their properties from 'County Lines' activity. Multi-agency safeguarding coupled with law enforcement intelligence and operations will generate effective disruption outcomes.
Multi-agency partnership working provides a sound platform upon which to combine the protection of young and vulnerable persons with criminal justice outcomes. The police will, from the outset, focus on the issues of 'aggravating or mitigating' circumstances, leading to the appropriate disposal and / or safeguarding of a person in custody.
As ‘County Lines’ activity operates across regions, the necessity to increase regional law enforcement and safeguarding collaboration increases. Successfully pursuing criminal network activity is informed by knowing which network members are where and who they are affiliated to, and ensuring individuals are appropriately safeguarded.
Activity by criminal networks generates considerable harm at both the urban core and within the county market location, which drives the need for multi-agency responses, particularly in connection with safeguarding vulnerable people. The police recognise that where there is 'exploitation' and 'coercion', 'vulnerable people' will be involved, including Class A drug addicts and those with mental health problems whose addresses are taken over (cuckooing).
The multi-agency partners must recognise that criminal networks may use drug dealing as an opportunity to lure young people for sexual exploitation. It is essential that the multi-agency collaboration ensures that measures must be in place to safeguard young females from sexual exploitation.
Prosecutors should consider all cases in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors and relevant CPS guidance. The following charging issues may arise in ‘County Lines’ cases:
- All available charges should be considered when considering a prosecution in connection with County Lines offences. The charges selected must reflect the criminal activity supported by evidence and which gives the court sufficient sentencing powers. Charges such as conspiracy to supply drugs, possession with intent to supply drugs, drug trafficking, money laundering, firearms and assault offences may well be the most effective charges in ‘county lines’ cases. Where the evidence suggest trafficking or modern slavery prosecutors should consider offences under the MSA and refer to the MSHT Legal Guidance. for assistance.
- In all cases where a suspect in a criminal case is a potential victim of trafficking and/or slavery, prosecutors should consider as early as possible the status of that person and adopt the four-stage assessment and advice set out in the MSHT Legal Guidance.
- Where the ‘county lines’ activity involves ‘cuckooing prosecutors should consider the full range of offences. If the victim has been subject to threats or violence, charges such as assault or harassment may be most appropriate. If charges are being considered under s1 MSA against any person(s) prosecutors should consider the MSHT Legal Guidance. There are a number of factors which may, depending on the circumstances, indicate that an individual might be held in servitude or subjected to forced or compulsory labour. The activities required to be performed by the individual whose property has been taken over should be considered. A charge of section 1 MSA may not be appropriate in cases where the cuckooed victim has done nothing apart from acquiesce to drugs being supplied from their home.
- Prosecutors should recognise that individuals interviewed as suspects may also need to be interviewed (not under caution) as a victim and further reasonable lines of enquiry may need to be identified to resolve this.
- Whether there are suspects who are involved in less serious criminality who might be used to give evidence against more critical suspects.
- Where vulnerable individuals and/or children are involved in a ‘county lines’ investigation, section 45 MSA provides a potential statutory defence. (see Schedule 4 MSA for offences excluded from section 45). A finding that a person is a victim of trafficking per se does not necessarily preclude prosecution but may do so. There must be some nexus between the trafficking and the offending (VCL and AN v United Kingdom (Applications 77587/12 and 74603/12). The fact that those who have been found to be victims of trafficking do not enjoy blanket immunity from prosecution is considered in R v GS  EWCA Crim 1825, O & N v The Queen  EWCA Crim 752 and R v GB  EWCA Crim 2.
- Where offences are excluded from a section 45 MSA defence because they are serious (Schedule 4 MSA), or there is no clear evidence of all of the elements of a section 45 defence, prosecutors should consider the CPS policy on non-prosecution on the basis of public interest or duress, following the MSHT legal guidance on prosecutorial discretion in such cases.
- An agreement under the Sentencing Act 2020 or a Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) could apply if the individual is likely to be prosecuted and has evidence or intelligence they can offer. However, it would not apply if the individual is a victim and therefore not subject to prosecution. See guidance on Assisting Offenders (Immunity, Undertakings and Agreements).
In certain limited circumstances where the Full Code Test is not met, prosecutors should consider whether it is appropriate to apply the Threshold Test to charge the suspect. Prosecutors charging under the Threshold Test should make it clear why they have selected a particular charge, the further evidence needed to meet the Full Code Test and provide an action plan, noting that once the investigation is complete the charges may be altered.
The police will operate a multi-agency approach at a national, regional and local level to respond to ‘county lines’ activity.
The NCLCC is part of policing’s approach to ‘county lines.’ The NCLCC follows the Gold, Silver and Bronze structure and the 4P approach (Prepare, Prevent, Pursue and Protect). The NCA lead on finance and upstream; the NPCC lead on all policing matters relating to the 4Ps, with set thematic areas. A network of co-ordinators and analysts across each of the Regional Organised Crime Units (‘ROCU’) act as a conduit for every police force and galvanise activity within all the forces in their region. The NCLCC obtains and disseminates national county lines intelligence, identifying cross border threats. A team of subject matter expert staff lead on each of the 4Ps and engage with other NPCC portfolios, partners, Government departments, NGOs and colleagues within policing, in order to develop best practice, policy, operational activity and training.
Each police force will have a mechanism in place for investigating ‘county lines’ offending and collaborative working with other forces and ROCUs. The mechanism will ensure a coordinated policing response which joins up the multiple policing portfolios dealing with county lines activity, including vulnerability; gangs; drugs; organised crime; missing persons; and violence. The collaborative working will encourage consistency across the forces in their practice to identify victims; gather evidence; the approach to be followed when victims remain silent / fail to report; and options to get victims to speak when there is fear of prosecution.
The police will agree with cross-partner and ROCU colleagues how to work collaboratively to build intelligence; tackle the demand for drugs; ensure disruption of the ‘county lines’ activity; protect the vulnerable; and carry out enforcement activity.
During the investigation the police will be alert to identify whether the ‘county lines’ activity involves violence, exploitation of vulnerable people, and organised crime. The police should consider any preventative orders that may be required to protect vulnerable people and prevent the dissipation of assets.
The police will consider whether the perpetrator has committed criminal offences under the MDA 1971, or whether the perpetrator is a victim of MSA 2015 offences.
The lines of enquiry and evidence requirements for drugs related offences under the MDA and for money laundering under POCA will differ, from the evidential requirements for offences under the MSA. To consider an offence under the MSA will usually require a pro-active investigation. Building a strong case will be dependent on obtaining evidence to support a modern slavery offence and not attempting to add charges on to a drug trafficking case. The police should seek early investigative advice from the CPS in accordance with the Director's Guidance on Charging.
Where the officer has reviewed the available intelligence and evidence believes that trafficking has taken place, a NRM referral should be made. Decisions about whether the individual is likely to be a victim of trafficking should be made on a case by case basis. Alternative support mechanisms (other than referral through the NRM) might be more appropriate for vulnerable children and adults where the evidence suggests they have not been a victim of trafficking but may be at risk of other forms of exploitation, for example grooming with a view to exploitation.
If the potential victim is over the age of 18 and does not wish to avail themselves of the support provided through the NRM, they should be referred through the ‘Duty to Notify’ process. Child victims (those under the age of 18) do not have to consent to be referred into the NRM and should also be referred to wider child safeguarding processes for support.
When carrying out investigations, it is good practice for both investigators and prosecutors to proactively try to establish so far as possible, who may be a witness, defendant or victim and whether there are victims or suspects who may also have available to them the statutory defence under section 45 MSA.
Where there may be consideration of charge and prosecution of children or vulnerable adults prosecutors should consider the guidance on youths offenders and suspects or defendants with mental health conditions or disorders. When the statutory defence may arise under section 45 MSA prosecutors should consider the MSHT guidance. Investigators should carry out questioning of any relevant defence (including section 45).
Victims of trafficking are often subject to debt-bondage as a control measure. This increases the likelihood of the victim not being willing to give evidence due to fear of retribution. Investigators should consider whether evidence of debt-bondage can demonstrate the ‘exploitation’ and ‘control’ of the victim.
It is important that efforts are made to gather evidence to build a robust prosecution case that is not focussed solely on the evidence of the complainants. The police should focus on obtaining independent evidence in respect of their exploitation and to prove other essential elements of the offence.
If evidence from any vulnerable or intimidated witness is required then this should be obtained, through an ABE interview, together with detail about the victim's previous offending history (if any). Section 28 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 may apply to allow pre-recorded cross‑examination of complainants. Prosecutors should also consider whether the law about hearsay could be used. See separate guidance on section 28.
In R v K and others  EWCA Crim 1432, the Court of Appeal considered the operation of the offence of trafficking a person within the UK for exploitation contrary to Section 4(1A)(b) Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 (which is now largely replicated in Section 2 MSA) and also considered the evidential requirements for bringing evidence led prosecutions for this offence. The Court held that:
- A prosecution for this offence does not depend upon the ability to call the individual said to have been exploited or the target of exploitation.
- It is not necessary for the prosecution to establish that the defendant (and/or another person) has actually exploited the victim. The offence requires no more than a ‘view to exploitation’.
- The prosecution does not have to prove that the victim was chosen solely because of their youth and that an adult would be likely to refuse. The fact that the victim may have been chosen for other reasons as well is not fatal to the prosecution case.
- The prosecution does not have to prove a lack of consent on the part of the victim or any element of coercion.
- The word ‘chosen’ is not synonymous with ‘being recruited’ and is not a once and for all act that cannot be repeated. A victim might be ‘chosen’ by various people in a drugs hierarchy on a number of occasions.
The CPS Area receiving the police file will accept and deal with the case. ‘County Lines’ cases will be allocated in accordance with the CPS national referral criteria including the Crown Court Unit and Complex Case Unit referral criteria.
When reviewing cases, the prosecutor should be alert to the issues which may arise in ‘county lines’ cases (see ‘Charging issues’).
See the MSHT legal guidance.
Where appropriate, the prosecutor will consider the use of assisting offender legislation for assisting offenders. CPS guidance sets out the procedures to be followed in all cases in which a specified prosecutor is considering making a formal agreement with offenders who have offered to assist the investigation or prosecution of offences committed by others.
The prosecutor will recognise that some victims will not want to support a prosecution, despite the availability of 'special measures'. The prosecutor will work with police colleagues to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to ensure strong cases can be presented at court. This may include the use of body worn video, 999 and 101 calls, forensic evidence and evidence which may be available via social media.
Consideration should be given to the recovery of assets from serious and organised crime by pursuing the assets of all who profit from crime, when it is proper to do so. If, on the face of the prosecution file, a suspect / defendant has benefited by more than a minor amount from his particular criminal conduct and is likely to have the means to pay a confiscation order, prosecutors should ask the officer in the case to refer the case for financial investigation. Regard must be given to the Proceeds of Crime legal policy and guidance in such cases.
The prosecutor will apply for appropriate ancillary orders or will remind the court of its power to make an order. When considering which orders to apply for, prosecution advocates must always have regard to the victim especially the issue of their future protection.
The prosecutor will apply for the forfeiture of any knives and / or offensive weapons. Prosecutors will consider whether it is appropriate to apply for a Deprivation of Property Order, as well as Disqualification from Driving.
The prosecutor will identify to the court the exploitative nature of the offending and will draw to the court's attention relevant Sentencing Guidelines, to ensure the aggravated nature of the offending attracts the most appropriately informed sentence. For example, the Sentencing Council's Guidelines for Drug Offences identify a list of aggravating features some of which are highly pertinent to gang related exploitation linked to facilitate drugs supply. The aggravating features include using or permitting an under 18 to deliver a controlled drug; drug supply conducted with proximity of a school; exploitation of children and / or vulnerable persons to assist in drug-related activity; and exercising control over the home of another person for drug-related activity. The Sentencing Guidelines for Slavery, Servitude and forced or compulsory labour/ human trafficking include as an aggravating factor if a victim has been forced to commit a criminal offence (whether or not they would be able to raise a defence if charged with those offences).
Prosecutors should assess the level of the role of suspects in an offence. A person organising a cuckooing operation is likely to fall within a leading role. Those who operate as a local manager or enforcer of a drug supply operation of that sort would also fall within a leading role - see R v Ajayi ; R v Limby EWCA Crim 1011. Those who do not fall within a leading role but who are involved in the process of cuckooing would ordinarily fall into a significant role.
Prosecutors should note that in R v Nixon (Omori Tevon-Te)  EWCA Crim 575, the Court of Appeal found that sentence was unduly lenient and sentencing for the drugs conspiracy on the one hand and the counts of trafficking on the other hand should be reached in isolation from each other, although at the end it is possible to look at the question of totality. The prosecutor will identify to the court the factors which may define the offending as serious organised crime, for example the use of violence and / or firearms, kidnap, and ruthless debt control. The prosecutor will, where appropriate, identify to the court the aggravating features of trafficking and slavery for the purpose of sentencing.