RICO Law

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act


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What is RICO Law?

RICO law refers to the prosecution and defense of individuals who engage in organized crime. In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in an effort to combat Mafia groups. Since that time, the law has been expanded and used to go after a variety of organizations, from corrupt police departments to motorcycle gangs. RICO law should not be thought of as a way to punish the commission of an isolated criminal act. Rather, the law establishes severe consequences for those who engage in a pattern of wrongdoing as a member of a criminal enterprise.

Title 18, Section 1961 of the United States Code sets forth a long list of racketeering activities, the repeated commission of which can form the basis of a RICO Act claim. These underlying federal and state offenses exist independently of the act, and include the crimes of homicide, kidnapping, extortion, and witness tampering. Racketeering activities also include property crimes such as robbery and arson. A number of financial crimes are also listed, such as money laundering, counterfeiting, securities violations, as well as mail and wire fraud.

Penalties in Criminal Court

The RICO Act provides both criminal and civil penalties. This means claims can be brought by prosecutors on behalf of the government, or by private individuals. In criminal prosecutions, the jury must be convinced of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest burden of proof that exists in the American legal system. Violations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The sentence can be increased to life in prison if authorized by the underlying crime. Offenders also face a fine of either $250,000, or double the amount of the proceeds earned from the activity.

As a tool for dismantling criminal enterprises, following a conviction the government is automatically given a forfeiture of all of the defendant’s interest in the organization. So not only do defendants lose all their money and property that can be traced back to the criminal conduct, but the organization itself can be severely crippled. And the government need not wait until after a guilty verdict, when the property expected to become subject to forfeiture may be difficult to locate. The rules of procedure in a RICO prosecution allow the government to freeze the defendant’s assets before the case even goes to trial.

Civil Remedies for Victims

For civil claims brought by private parties who have been victimized by a criminal organization, the burden of proof is less onerous than in criminal court. A preponderance of the evidence standard applies. This means the jury must find that it is at least slightly more likely than not that the racketeering activities did in fact happen as alleged. Despite the lower burden of proof, civil RICO lawsuits are difficult and expense for individuals to pursue. Those who win are rewarded, however. Successful plaintiffs can recover “treble damages,” or in other words, three times the amount of money they lost due to the defendant’s actions.

Specific Elements of a RICO Claim

Liability for a RICO violation requires that a person be involved in an enterprise that operates through a pattern of racketeering activity. This raises a couple of issues that will prove important to anyone defending or pursuing a RICO case. First, a controversy may arise as to what will satisfy the element requiring an enterprise. Corporations, partnerships, and other businesses will surely qualify as enterprises. But what about informal organizations, like street gangs?

The Supreme Court considered the issue, and determined that an enterprise can be any group with members who are associated in a relationship in order to achieve a common purpose, provided the relationship lasts long enough to allow them to pursue that purpose. In the terminology of RICO law, such groups are known as “association-in-fact” enterprises.

Another common issue concerns the element requiring a pattern of racketeering activity. The RICO Act itself defines the term pattern as two or more acts of racketeering activity within a 10-year period. However, the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue as well. According to the Court, to qualify as a pattern, the criminal activities must be related and continuous. Relatedness will be established if the crimes have similar characteristics such as the same perpetrators, victims, and methods of commission. Continuity will be established if the crimes occurred over a substantial period of time. Some courts have interpreted this to mean at least one year.

The Importance of Legal Representation

Whether you are interested in filing a claim against a criminal enterprise, or need help defending a case brought against you, you will need experienced legal representation. A skilled attorney will use the complex provisions of the RICO Act to your benefit. To learn more, contact a RICO lawyer today.

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