NEW powers intended to be used to sift out "dirty money" laundered in the UK by Russian oligarchs could be used to strip suspected county lines drug dealers of their ill-gotten assets, even if police don't have enough evidence to charge them, it has emerged.
Police are exploring the potential to issue unexplained wealth orders (UWOs) against the property or cars of suspected mid-range drug dealers, who control networks of drug lines running from major cities into the suburbs.
Known as the "McMafia Law" after the hit BBC drama McMafia about Russian corruption in the UK, they were intended for use against politically exposed foreign investors and people with significant assets who have been connected to organised crime.
POWER: UWO legislation was launched in the wake of the attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal (Facebook)
But, since the legislation was introduced last spring, in the wake of the attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury, only four unexplained wealth orders have been applied for by the National Crime Agency (NCA), and none against Russian nationals.
UWOs can be applied for when an asset of more than £50,000 is identified when the owner does not have a legitimate means to make the purchase and is suspected of involvement in serious organised crime.
Now the Met Police is looking at the potential to lower this threshold so they could be used to target the assets and cars of lower-level organised criminals such as county lines gang bosses, who are seen as responsible for much of the spate of drugs-related violence and killings seen across the capital.
County lines gangs often exploit vulnerable people, including children, and send them to country and seaside towns to sell to local addicts, meaning it can be difficult to prosecute the leaders who show off their wealth on social media.
IDEA: Mick Gallagher in New Scotland Yard during our interview (EN&I)
But, if they were hit with a UWO, the onus is on them to prove how they legitimately purchased the car or property or risk it being seized.
Mick Gallagher, head of the Met Police serious crime command, said there were about 20 current drug cases they were looking at where UWOs maybe useful to the force.
He said: "We are looking at that kind of legislation with a view to using it in its purest form against the drug dealers and people our communities see with visible wealth.
"The type of drug dealer that has got a £100,000 Ferrari with no visible income source and the people driving the violence on our streets.
"We have the opportunity to go forward with law enforcement and get in that space around unexplained wealth orders and their really pragmatic use going forward."
Currently only the NCA, the Financial Conduct Authority, HMRC, the Serious Fraud Office and CPS can apply for a UWO, and police forces would have to go through one of them to use the power.
Mr Gallagher said talks were underway with the CPS about how to "use the legislation effectively".
He said: “What we’re trying to influence going forward is a lower-level threshold use so we can target individuals that our communities see on the streets - people who seem to be doing well out of criminality.”
UWO applications are a costly process and have to be heard in the High Court involving barristers.
Yet, police can already apply to the magistrates' court for bank account freezing orders or to seize property or assets, through processes that can be applied for by an officer if there are reasonable grounds to suspect they are the proceeds of crime.
EASIER: Michael Potts says existing powers could get the job done (Byrne and Partners)
This would be a much simpler and less costly approach the involving a barrister and application to the High Court, according to a top finance lawyer.
Michael Potts is a senior partner at Byrne and Partners LLP, who worked on high-profile civil and criminal cases such as the investigation into Libor rigging and the ‘Operation Elveden’ investigation into alleged corruption at News International publications.
He said: "It is not clear why the police would regard what is arguably a more expensive process of UWOs and later civil recovery in the High Court when they have account freezing and forfeiture orders as well as cash seizure and forfeiture orders – both of which are a quicker, cheaper form of asset recovery in the magistrates’ court and only require a reasonable suspicion to meet initial thresholds."
SEIZED: Police want to go for drug dealers' assets even if they cannot charge them (EN&I)
An NCA spokesperson said: “If a referral is made to the NCA by a police force which meets our aims and priorities we would consider the case and determine the most appropriate course of action. This may include the use of UWOs amongst a wide range of other law enforcement tools."
The news came in the same week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of a new cross-Whitehall criminal justice task force to tackle crime gangs that he will lead with Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Earlier this month Mrs Patel joined Merseyside Police as they executed a number of county lines raids in a joint operation with North Wales Police with suspects arrested in both areas.