Since 1970, the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act is a federal law that has been used to combat organized crime across the United States.
Originally, the RICO Act was created to prosecute prominent Mafia families during a time of corruption and mob rule. However, people now argue that this act can impede a person’s First Amendment right to freedom of association.
Over the years, the RICO Act has been used to go after all sorts of alleged criminal enterprises, including the activities of doctors, insider trading, and anti-abortion groups. There are many other examples of how the broadness of the RICO Act has been exploited by prosecutors to put defendants under the RICO gun in cases ranging far from the Mafia activities that formed the original basis for the Act.
Over the years, RICO has expanded to cover 35 distinct crimes, including:
- Larceny crimes, such as robbery or theft.
- Crimes involving people, such as murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, and witness tampering.
- Crimes involving money, such as fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, gambling, and bribery.
- Violent acts, such as arson, terrorism, obstruction of justice, and drug trafficking.
Though these crimes are already felonies on their own, they can be elevated to a RICO violation if:
- The person charged has been engaging in a minimum of two predicate crimes (a crime which is a component of a larger crime) within the past 10 years; and
- The predicate offenses were committed in connection with an enterprise (either a legal or illegal one). The enterprise must also be a discrete entity.
Though RICO charges are often criminal, a civil suit can also be brought up by anyone injured in a RICO violation. However, as of the 1990s, federal courts set up additional “hurdles” for plaintiffs filing a civil suit. In order to succeed on a RICO claim, a plaintiff must show:
- Criminal activity took place. Plaintiffs must show that the defendant committed a RICO crime.
- There was a pattern of criminal activity. One criminal act doesn’t constitute a RICO crime. Plaintiffs have to show a pattern of at least two crimes that were related (for example same victim, same methods, same participants). The pattern can also be continuous, meaning it was conducted over at least a year.
- The criminal acts fall within the RICO statute of limitations. RICO has a four-year statute of limitations. The “clock” begins when the victim discovers his or her damages.
A RICO conviction can have serious consequences. A person convicted can face one or more of the below penalties:
- Up to 20 years in prison (the prison time can increase to up to a life sentence depending on the underlying crime committed);
- A fine of either $250,000 or double the amount of proceeds earned from illicit activity.
Another critical, and often criticized, aspect of RICO crimes involves the government’s ability to freeze a defendant’s assets before the case has gone to trial. The initial reasoning for this law was because the government feared defendants would have too much time to hide assets if the government had to wait until a guilty verdict was entered. However, critics of the law now claim that this law affects a person’s ability to be innocent until proven guilty.
The government can forfeit or seizure any of the below:
- Any interest acquired through illegal activity;
- Any interest, security, claim, or property/contractual right in the enterprise associated with the activity;
- Any property collected through racketeering;
- Physical property like homes or businesses;
- Intangible property like privileges, securities, or claims.
If a person is convicted, their assets and interest in the enterprise are seized by the government. The government’s goal is that once these valuable assets are lost, the entire enterprise will suffer irreparable and long-term damage, therefore preventing it from continuing with criminal acts.
If you’re facing potential charges under RICO or other racketeering laws, trust Seth Kirschenbaum and Nicholas Lotito for a strong defense. Schedule your free and confidential consultation by contacting us online or calling (404) 471-3177.