This law is known to target not just criminal organizations like the mafia, but also legal businesses, who might engage in criminal activities, i.e., the law is used to reduce fraud, organized crime, white-collar crimes, and political corruption. The Act allows the prosecutor to bring all kinds of criminal acts, done by an organization, together in a single trial. Let us take a look at how this law came about.
Before RICO was passed, prosecutors could try mafia-related crimes only individually. This meant that the government could tackle only individual criminals, rather than the entire criminal organizations. To solve this problem, the RICO Act was made as a part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The aim of the Congressional hearings for the creation of the act, was to create measures to control organizations such as the mafia, which were heavily involved in organized crime like gambling, racketeering, etc. The idea was to tie all the crimes of such organizations in one case. The act was sponsored by Senator John Little McClellan and was signed to become law by President Richard Nixon on October 15, 1970. As time passed, this law evolved and was also used against a wide variety of businesses, legitimate and otherwise, who were engaging in fraudulent activity.
A person can be charged under the RICO Act, if he/she has committed at least 2 out of 27 federal and 8 state crimes, within a 10-year period. It gives the federal government the power to prosecute and imprison leaders in organized crime rackets, even if he/she has never committed the crimes personally. The law should be thought of as a deterrent for those who engage in a pattern of criminal activity as a member of a criminal enterprise.
The Act also set a range of penalties for racketeering activities, depending on the type of crime and the amount of damage that was done by the accused. It also allows victims or kin of victims to sue for damages incurred, cost of the trial, and the fees of the attorney, if the RICO Act violation is proved in a civil court.
Title 18, Section 1961 of the United States Code gives a long list of activities which can be used for a claim under this law. The crimes that may fall under the RICO Act include homicides, drug offenses, theft, burglary, bribery, tampering with witnesses and evidence, arson, prostitution, intimidation of court authorities, commercial gambling, credit card crimes, destroying or manipulating identification numbers, distributing obscene material, perjury, firearm offenses, security violations, possession of automobile parts, without identification features, terrorist threats, vehicle and aircraft hijacking, crimes involving titles, forgery, computer crimes, false imprisonment, mortgage fraud, fraudulent payday loans, etc.
Usually, if a person is convicted under the RICO statute, he/she can end up with a sentence ranging between 5-20 years, a fine up to USD 25,000, or both. The judge can fine the defendant up to three times the amount he/she made in the crime. The judge can also order the defendant to give up the property or business that was gained illegally, and can be restricted from engaging in the same field of business ever again. In cases where the crime is punishable by life imprisonment, the Act allows the punishment to be extended into a life imprisonment.
To prosecute a defendant under the RICO Act successfully, the federal prosecutors must prove three aspects of the crime:
- Pattern of Racketeering: The prosecutors must prove that the defendant has committed two or more crimes related to the racketeering charge within a period of 10 years, without any period of imprisonment within that duration. This sequence of crimes will be considered as a pattern of racketeering.
- Criminal Enterprise: A criminal enterprise can be a partnership, corporation, or a union, which is working as a criminal gang. To prove the group as a criminal enterprise, the prosecution has to prove that the accused is an ongoing organization which works as a unit. The group has to have a common purpose, and the organization should exist separate from the member's illegal activities. The prosecutors also have to show that the defendant had some amount of control over the criminal enterprise.
- Effect on Interstate Commerce: In order to be prosecuted under RICO law, the crime has to have had some effect on interstate commerce. Any criminal enterprise which moves large amounts of money, goods, or people from one state of the country to another can come under this act.
Key West Police Department: In 1984, the Key West Police Department of Florida, was declared to be a criminal enterprise under RICO law, after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found many high-ranking officials, such as the Deputy Police Chief, were involved in running a protection racket for cocaine smugglers. The accused were pronounced guilty after testimony from various witnesses.
Lucchese Crime Family: Until the 1990s, the Lucchese family, had a firm hold on garment, construction, and garbage hauling businesses, in New York City, through the extortion of money through taxes, fees, and dues. Prosecuting Attorneys Charles Rose and Gregory O'Connell used the RICO Act to break down the activities of the crime family, which had a great financial impact on various mafia-run industries in the city.
FIFA: Under the RICO Act, fourteen people affiliated with the international football body were indicted on counts of racketeering, money laundering, and wire fraud conspiracies. The defendants, were accused of using their position with FIFA to collect millions of dollars in bribes to influence the winning bids of countries to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Gil Dozier: In 1980, Gil Dozier, the Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, faced charges related to RICO and Hobbs Act. He was accused of coercing companies related with his department, to make contributions towards his campaign. The district court found him guilty of extortion and racketeering, earning him a 10-year sentence, which was extended to 18 years after being convicted of further crimes.
Despite the fact that the law has been very useful in cutting down organized crime, it has had its share of controversies and drawbacks. Mainly, its civil provisions have been misused against businesses that are not linked to organized crime. Prosecutors realized that the act's broad language, allows its use in simple cases such as malpractice and unregulated commercial fraud. However, despite calls for reform in the law, not much change has been brought about by the U.S. Congress.
A prosecution under the RICO Act is a very complex process. It is recommended that a person who is being charged under this law, gets hold of an experienced criminal attorney to defend their rights. Such an attorney will be able to inform the defendant correctly about where the court stands, and help in obtaining the best possible outcome in the case.