What is the Federal RICO Act?

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The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as the RICO Act, is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. Enacted by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, the RICO Act is codified at Title 18 of the United States Code, Sections 1961-1968. Its primary purpose is to combat organized crime in the United States, but its broad provisions have allowed it to be applied in a wide range of criminal activities.

Origins and Purpose

The RICO Act was designed to address the growing problem of organized crime, particularly the influence of the Mafia and similar groups that operated in an organized, hierarchical structure. Before RICO, prosecuting members of such organizations was challenging because law enforcement had to prove individual crimes committed by each member. The RICO Act allows prosecutors to charge leaders of a criminal organization based on the collective actions of the group, thus making it easier to dismantle these organizations.

Key Provisions

The RICO Act defines 35 offenses that constitute racketeering activity, including illegal gambling, bribery, kidnapping, murder, money laundering, and drug trafficking. These offenses, often referred to as “predicate acts,” form the basis for RICO charges if they are part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

Section 1961: Definitions

Section 1961 outlines the definitions of key terms used in the RICO Act. This section specifies what constitutes racketeering activity and lists the predicate acts that can trigger RICO charges. It also defines what constitutes an “enterprise” and what it means to participate in the conduct of an enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity.

Section 1962: Prohibited Activities

Section 1962 is the heart of the RICO Act, detailing the activities that are prohibited under the law:

  • Section 1962(a): Prohibits any person who has received income from a pattern of racketeering activity from investing that income in an enterprise.
  • Section 1962(b): Makes it illegal for any person to acquire or maintain an interest in an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.
  • Section 1962(c): Prohibits any person employed by or associated with an enterprise from conducting the enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity.
  • Section 1962(d): Makes it illegal to conspire to violate any of the other subsections of Section 1962.

Application and Impact

The broad language of the RICO Act has allowed it to be applied in various contexts beyond traditional organized crime. For example, RICO has been used to prosecute cases involving political corruption, white-collar crime, and even gang activity.

Notable Cases

  • United States v. Turkette (1981): The Supreme Court held that RICO applies to both legitimate and illegitimate enterprises.
  • Hells Angels (1979): The motorcycle club was prosecuted under RICO for its involvement in drug trafficking and other criminal activities.
  • Michael Milken (1990): The financier was indicted under RICO for securities fraud and other white-collar crimes.

Civil Remedies

In addition to criminal penalties, the RICO Act provides for civil remedies. Individuals or organizations harmed by a pattern of racketeering activity can file a civil lawsuit under RICO. Plaintiffs can potentially recover treble damages, which are three times the actual damages they sustained, plus attorneys’ fees. This provision has led to a significant number of civil RICO cases, particularly in the context of business disputes.

Criticisms and Controversies

While the RICO Act has been a powerful tool for combating organized crime, it has also faced criticism. Some argue that the law is too broad and allows for overreach by prosecutors. Others contend that it can be used to unfairly target legitimate businesses and individuals who may only be tangentially associated with criminal activity.

For example, in the case of Cedric Kushner Promotions, Ltd. v. King (2001), the Supreme Court ruled that an individual and the corporation they operate can constitute an “enterprise” under RICO, raising concerns about the potential for misuse of the law against small business owners.

Modern Usage

Today, the RICO Act continues to be a crucial tool for law enforcement. Recent applications of RICO include prosecutions against street gangs, human trafficking rings, and cybercrime organizations. The flexibility of the RICO Act allows it to adapt to evolving criminal enterprises and emerging threats.


The Federal RICO Act remains a landmark piece of legislation in the fight against organized crime. By allowing for the prosecution of criminal enterprises as a whole, rather than just individual members, RICO has significantly enhanced the ability of law enforcement to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations. Despite criticisms and controversies, the RICO Act’s broad applications and civil remedies continue to make it a powerful and versatile tool in the pursuit of justice.


  • U.S. Code Title 18, Sections 1961-1968. Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from Cornell Law School.
  • “RICO Charges and Defense: An Overview.” Nolo. Retrieved from Nolo Legal Encyclopedia.
  • “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from FBI.gov.
  • United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576 (1981). Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from Cornell Law School.
  • Cedric Kushner Promotions, Ltd. v. King, 533 U.S. 158 (2001). Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from Cornell Law School.