Federal racketeering laws arose from the legal difficulty of prosecuting the leaders of organized criminal cartels. Under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as 18 USC §§ 1961-1968, legislators sought to address loopholes that had allowed some criminal bosses to avoid prosecution for activities by avoiding association with criminal acts their accomplices had apparently been ordered to do. Today, RICO provides the backbone of federal prosecution related to racketeering.
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RICO defines a wide variety of criminal activities based upon an organization’s status as one that derives income from criminal offenses. Individuals cannot acquire, establish, or operate any enterprise with illegally derived income, acquire or maintain any interest or control of any enterprise through illegal activity, or use any enterprise to commit illegal acts. These laws help federal prosecutors to pursue charges against high-level organized crime figures who might otherwise be able to distance themselves from a variety of charges through an appearance of plausible deniability.
Racketeering Crimes & Charges
Although state laws may prohibit individual aspects of criminal enterprises, federal RICO laws provide the legal force to “bust up” criminal empires that stretch across multiple jurisdictions. Extortion, blackmail, and bribery are three common federal offenses that can cause otherwise lawful organizations to fall under the provision of the RICO Act. Criminal front organizations are frequently subject to scrutiny and eventual prosecution on the basis of RICO.
- Any enterprise that derives any of its income through illegal activity may be subject to additional penalties under RICO. These can include such things as gambling houses, brothels, and so on.
- Otherwise legal organizations that derive some portion of their income through illicit activities may be subject to RICO. For example, a bar with a valid liquor license that provides the cover for illegal gambling or for the planning of unlawful activities may be subject.
- Organizations that are used for the purposes of “laundering” money, even if the majority of participants are unaware of the organization’s criminal connections, may fall under the dominion of RICO. For example, general contractors, waste removal companies and other firms that have sometimes been used to launder “dirty” money may be shut down, have assets seized, or be liquidated in favor of lawful owners.
RICO legislation provides for numerous punishments. Imprisonment for RICO-related activities is not to exceed twenty years, and the individual faces forfeiture of property that was obtained through illicit means. An individual fined under RICO may generally not be fined more than twice the proceeds from their illicit activities.
Racketeering Sentencing Guidelines
Racketeering sentencing guidelines are extremely strict. Although general racketeering statutes provide for maximum imprisonment of up to twenty years, a life sentence is possible if any of the underlying racketeering activities provide for a life sentence. Likewise, in the event that property obtained through illicit means cannot be located, courts can order the forfeiture of any of the defendant’s other properties.
Racketeering Statute of Limitations
Title 18 of the United States Code, section 3282, provides that no person may be brought to trial, prosecuted or punished for any non-capital offense unless they are indicted or information is filed within five years. It is important to note that some criminal activities that might be connected with racketeering may not be protected by the short statute of limitations provided by Title 18.
Racketeering cases have traditionally been at the heart of breaking down some of the longest-running and most powerful criminal organizations. By criminalizing the flow of income that sustains such organizations, authorities have been able to make high-level arrests and bring cases successfully to court. RICO prosecution is an active part of federal law enforcement and “gang busting” to this very day:
- In August of 2013, a jury found notorious mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger guilty of charges including murder and racketeering. As a leader in Boston organized crime, Bulger’s activities spanned several decades. (Bulger Found Guilty: CNN)
- Alleged members of one of the most visible violent gangs in the Chicagoland area, the Hobos, became the targets of federal racketeering and other charges in September 2013 as pressure mounted on prosecutors to crack down on organized crime in the area. (Huffington Post: Alleged Members Face Charges After 6-Year Investigation)
Racketeering Quick Links & References
- Cornell Legal Information Institute White Paper on Racketeering Laws & Definition
- Comprehensive Overview of Racketeering and Organized Crime Related Statutes
- 2009 Edition of Federal Prosecutors’ Manual for RICO and Racketeering Charges (PDF)
- Overview of RICO and Related Information from Nolo Legal Database & Online Library
- FBI Glossary of Organized Crime Terms Related to Federal Racketeering Charges
- OLR Research Report on Definition of Racketeering and its Relation to Federal Officials
Racketeering Laws by State
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming