Sussex Police, working with the Metropolitan Police Service and the Home Office, is the first force in the country to use a new law aimed at curbing the use of phone lines by organised crime groups to distribute drugs.
Two investigations have already resulted in the closure of nine dedicated phone lines used by alleged dealers targeting users in Brighton & Hove.
One group was offering cocaine, and the other group was offering heroin and crack cocaine.
A total of 38 people have so far been arrested in the two operations, which are ongoing.
Powers in the new Digital Economy Act enable police to seek restrictions on handsets that they believe are being used by drug dealers to operate "deal-lines" to remotely deal drugs, sometimes known as 'County Lines', in areas outside major cities.
The crime groups sometimes exploit drugs users, children and other vulnerable people as couriers, using "specific" mobile phone numbers.
Police can apply for a county court order that is then sent to the relevant telecommunications provider. The Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restrictions Orders (DDTROs) require a communications provider to take whatever action the orders specify to prevent or restrict the use of communication devices in connection with drug dealing offences, typically closing the lines down.
When lines are closed by service providers after the issue of a DDTRO, police send the known users of the lines a text informing recipients that it is part of continuing enquiries aimed at combating drug abuse in Sussex and that the phone numbers to which the messages have been sent have been identified as being in contact with a known drugs line. It is made clear that police realise that the owners of the phones may or not have made the contact and recipients are also provided with local contact details for drug treatment advice.
The first DDTROs were implemented for two numbers on 25 January, and on 20 April two further numbers were closed down. All four relate to the cocaine 'line'
On 23 April five numbers relating to the separate alleged heroin and crack cocaine activity were shut down.
Assistant Chief Constable Jeremy Burton on the Surrey and Sussex Police Specialist Crime Command said: "DDTRO's are a valuable new resource that law enforcement can use in our continuing work with partners to combat the scourge of illicit drugs in local communities. It is already clear that they can help disrupt dealing activity and produce extra valuable intelligence for us about organised crime groups.
"But they have to be used as part of our overall strategic approach to this type of organised criminality, and they need to be closely co-ordinated with our operational work including arrests and seizures of phones.
"The criminality we are combating typically involves organised crime groups from other areas selling class A drugs, in particular cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. They establish and operate distinctive telephone numbers for customers ordering drugs, operated from outside the area, which becomes their ‘brand’. Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers have value so are maintained and protected.
"The 'County Lines' groups tend to use a local property, generally belonging to a vulnerable person, sometimes drug users, as a base for their activities. This is known as 'cuckoooing' and will often happen by force or coercion. In some instances victims have left their homes in fear of violence.
"However, some crime groups, as with the alleged heroin and crack cocaine line currently under investigation, do not follow the 'cuckooing' method, but instead just place known associates into the community to act as the local contacts."
Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, said; “It will be very reassuring for the public to hear that Sussex Police are the first in the country to use DDTROs to disrupt drug dealers.
"I’m delighted that the new legislation gives the police the powers they need to ensure that telecommunication providers can shut down phone lines being used by organised crime gangs.
"Only this week, I have been talking to officers in one of our coastal towns to see for myself how local crime is often a direct result of major drug distribution via county lines.
"Officers will welcome the DDTROs as an effective addition to their drug-busting armoury, and the approach that offers support for dependent drug users.
The 35 arrests resulting from the drug line investigations is sending a clear message to drug gangs that they cannot expect an easy ride in Sussex.”
Victoria Atkins, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, said: “County lines gang activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation have a devastating impact on young people and vulnerable adults.
“The Government is determined to fight this emerging threat and we are already taking measures to ensure police and practitioners have the tools they need to crack down on offenders and protect victims across our communities. I welcome the hard work and commitment from forces to tackle these criminals and their effective use of this new legislation proves how we can work together to prevent serious crime.
“In addition we have recently launched the Serious Violence Strategy which highlights the strong link between drugs and serious violence and supports a new balance between prevention and effective law enforcement. As part of the Strategy we are backing the development of the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre which will support such police operations.”
In relation to the alleged 'cocaine line', Kujedesi Pista, 36, an electrical worker, of Charlottes Court, Cardigan St, Luton, pleaded guilty at Lewes Crown Court on Tuesday (10 April) to conspiracy to supply class A drugs. He was the man arrested in Luton on 7 March. He will be sentenced on a date yet to be set by the court, in September.
In a further development in that investigation, on Thursday (19 April) Hynsi Tafa, 46, a builder, of Wauluds Bank Drive, Luton, was charged with being concerned with Pista in conspiracy to supply of Class A drugs. He appeared in custody at Brighton Magistrates Court on Friday (20 April) and was remanded in custody to appear at Lewes Crown Court on 19 May.
Thirty-six arrests have so far been made in relation to the five closed down heroin and crack cocaine lines and enquiries are continuing. The total of arrests includes two that were made as a result of a related operation on Monday 23 April, when detectives from the Brighton Community Investigation Team executed search warrants at four addresses in the city, and another man who was arrested the following day.
Adedoyin Balogun, 24, of Park Crescent, Brighton, and a 17-year-old boy who cannot be named for legal reasons have been charged with being concerned in the supply of heroin and crack cocaine. They appeared at Brighton Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday (24 April) and were committed for trial at Lewes Crown Court with an initial appearance on 22 May.
Zak El Alami, 18, of no fixed address, has been charged with the same offence and is appearing in custody at Brighton Magistrates Court on Wednesday (25 April).
For advice and information about drugs see the Sussex Police drug advice page.