The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act “RICO” is often thought of as a law designed to combat the Mafia. While that is how the law was first primarily used and intended, it has been applied in cases involving organizations that few people would mistake for the Mafia, including Major League Baseball, the Key West Police Department and the Catholic Church. RICO creates criminal and civil penalties for members of organizations that engage in patterns of criminal activity.
Why RICO Exists
The original intent of RICO was to allow for the successful prosecution of high-ranking members of the Mafia. Previously, prosecutors could get convictions for the lower-ranking members who actually carried out criminal activity, but found it difficult to prosecute the leaders who ordered the activity. For example, the mobster who hijacked a truck could be convicted, but the other members of the Mafia family who profited from the heist usually were not. RICO gave the U.S. Attorney’s office a way to successfully prosecute members of an organization for the criminal activity of their associates.
How It Works
To successfully prosecute for RICO it must be shown that members of a criminal enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering that had an effect on interstate commerce. Those elements need to be broken down for an explanation:
- Criminal Enterprise – Any organization that works together over time and has an organizational structure with one or more persons making decisions for the organization. The enterprise can have either an illegal or a legal purpose.
- Pattern of Racketeering – The members of the organization must have engaged in ongoing illegal activity. At least two predicate crimes (explained below) must have been committed. Two separate and unrelated crimes are not considered a pattern of racketeering. There must be some kind of ongoing scheme of criminal activity.
- Effect on Interstate Commerce – This merely refers to anything that has any effect on commerce when that effect is not entirely limited to one state. Any economic activity of any substance normally meets the criteria.
RICO charges cannot be filed against people who engage in any criminal activity. The statute lists particular criminal activity. These underlying crimes that can trigger RICO charges are called predicate crimes. Some examples of the listed crimes are:
- Money laundering
- Securities Fraud
- Dealing in obscene material
- Drug trafficking
The above list is not comprehensive. As you can see from what is listed, the possible predicate crimes for RICO charges span a wide range of criminal activity and include white collar crimes.
Use by the U.S. Attorney’s Office
RICO carries extremely stiff penalties and intrudes on traditional areas of state law. Because of this the U.S. Attorney has a policy of using RICO sparingly and will only do so if at least one of the following is met:
- Only charging for the underlying crimes would be inadequate to reflect the nature and extent of the criminal activity;
- If convicted, RICO would allow for appropriate sentencing in a way that the underlying crimes would not;
- Related criminal acts would otherwise have to be prosecuted in separate jurisdictions;
- Without the use of RICO, prosecution would be unsuccessful;
- Forfeiture under RICO would be appropriate for the criminal activity;
- The underlying crimes are state crimes and the local prosecutors are unable or unlikely to prosecute; or,
- The underlying crimes are state crimes involving government or other significant officials the prosecution of whom would cause special problems for local prosecutors.
What to do if Charged
If you are charged with or suspected of RICO offenses, you absolutely need to seek expert legal counsel. RICO can carry much higher imprisonment lengths than many of the underlying white collar crimes that trigger it. As mentioned above, RICO can also be used as the basis for civil lawsuits. If you lose a civil RICO lawsuit, you can be ordered to pay three times the actual damages. That means that if a jury finds that you embezzled $1,000, you might have to pay $3,000 as compensation.
RICO charges are nothing to mess around with. You need an attorney with you every step of the way, especially if you are being accused of being a white collar criminal and had no intention of joining a criminal enterprise of any kind.