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If you’re charged with crimes under RICO, there are a range of possible outcomes, and a racketeering attorney will be able to help you navigate this process.

RICO law, dictated by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a complex area of law. Understanding the charges and potential sentences can help you begin to make choices about representation in your RICO case.

What Is RICO Law?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act was passed in 1970 under President Richard Nixon and is designed to handle individuals who engage in organized crime. Its initial purpose was to combat mob and Mafia groups, but since then, it has been expanded and used to prosecute a range of organizations, including corrupt police departments and motorcycle gangs. Rather than a way to punish an isolated criminal act, RICO is used to establish severe consequences for those engaging in patterns of wrongdoing in association with a criminal enterprise. This means that the leader of a criminal organization can also be charged for crimes they ordered others to commit.

Title 18, Section 1961 of the United States Code lists racketeering activities, which, when repeated, can form the basis of a RICO Act claim. These can include homicide, kidnapping, extortion, and witness tampering, as well as robbery or arson. Financial crimes can also be included, such as counterfeiting, money laundering, securities violations, and mail or wire fraud. A companion statute, the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering (VICAR) statute, addresses violent crime.

The RICO Act criminalizes three primary activities:

  • Using illegal income to acquire, establish, or operate an enterprise
  • Acquiring an interest in such an enterprise
  • Using an enterprise to collect debt

It is also unlawful to conspire to engage in any of these activities and to use the money gained through these activities to your knowledge.

While most RICO laws are at the federal level, a number of states have separate laws surrounding racketeering. These laws are often known as “Little RICO Acts” and work similarly to the federal statute. Georgia’s RICO laws can impose both criminal and civil charges and add additional sentencing time to any federal charges. If you are charged with RICO crimes at both the state and federal level, it’s possible to be found guilty in one case and not the other as they will have separate trials and juries.

Who Can Be Charged Under RICO?

Liability in a RICO claim requires that someone is involved in an enterprise that operates within a pattern of racketeering activity. For anyone defending a RICO case, this can lead to controversy as to what defines that requirement of an enterprise. Corporations, partnerships, and other businesses easily qualify as an enterprise, but there can be questions around informal organizations like street gangs.

The Supreme Court has rules on this, determining that an enterprise can be any group with members who are associated in order to achieve a common purpose, provided the relationship lasts long enough to allow them to pursue this purpose. In RICO law, this is known as an “association in fact” enterprise.

The other definition that can come into question is what constitutes a pattern of racketeering activity. The RICO Act itself defines a pattern as two or more acts of racketeering activity within a ten-year period, but the Supreme Court has also been called on to rule here as well. The court determined that in order to qualify as a pattern, criminal activities must be related and continuous. Relatedness is established when crimes have similar characteristics like the same perpetrators, victims, or methods of commission. Continuity is established when crimes occur over a substantial period of time, often interpreted as one year.

Criminal RICO Penalties

When RICO charges are brought forth by the government or an individual, they are considered criminal charges and will require a jury conviction of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest burden of proof that exists in the American legal system and can therefore be difficult to obtain.

Violations of RICO Act are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but if there is any underlying crime such as murder, this can become a life sentence. There is also a potential fine of either $250,000 or double the amount of the proceeds earned through illegal activity.
Following a conviction, the government is automatically granted a forfeiture of all the defendant’s interests in the relevant organization. This means that in addition to the defendant losing money and property tied to the crime, any related organization itself can be severely crippled and ultimately dismantled. Even if there is no conviction yet, the government can freeze assets prior to a trial if it is expected to be difficult to locate.

Civil RICO Penalties

In addition to criminal charges, private citizens can bring forth charges against a criminal organization that has victimized them. Because this is not criminal court, the burden of proof is lower and is a preponderance of evidence. This means the jury must simply find it is at least slightly more likely than not that the racketeering occurred as alleged by the plaintiff.

However, civil RICO cases are difficult and expensive to mount and are therefore uncommon. When a plaintiff is successful, they can be entitled to three times the amount of money lost due to the defendant’s actions.

Defense Against RICO Charges

In order to be found guilty in violation of the RICO Act, the prosecution must prove multiple critical elements:

  • An enterprise exists
  • The enterprise impacted interstate or foreign commerce
  • You were associated with or employed by the enterprise
  • You engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity
  • You conducted or participated in the conduct of the enterprise through that pattern of racketeering activity by committing at least two acts of racketeering activity.

RICO cases are investigated by federal agents and handled by the federal courts and prosecutors, who have been specifically trained for cases like this. Beating RICO charges can therefore be complex and requires the expertise of an attorney who is familiar with these laws.

In order to defend you in a RICO case, a defense lawyer simply has to be able to prove that any one of the above conditions is not true beyond a reasonable doubt. Under American law, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty of each individual charge.

A skilled defense attorney may argue that you did not commit the crimes in question, that your actions were not criminal, that you were not aware of any criminal intent, or that there was not a pattern or an enterprise to begin with. In any case, where the prosecution can’t successfully dispute this, a jury should not be able to find you guilty.

Because of the serious nature of many RICO-related crimes, the government takes them very seriously, and investigations can be aggressive and extensive. If you suspect an investigation may begin, it’s a good idea to retain a lawyer early on in the process rather than waiting for charges to be filed. A good attorney can help you navigate the process of the investigation, any questioning, and early court dates. By being proactive, you may be able to avoid the most severe outcomes in these cases.

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