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RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act)


One might wonder what is valuable or innovative about prohibiting actions that are by definition already crimes. The answer is largely procedural. By defining as a single offense the commission of a series of distinct crimes, RICO avoids a variety of traditional procedural, evidentiary, and jurisdictional rules that tend to discourage prosecuting separate offenses together. For example, RICO includes as "predicate acts" that may form part of a pattern of racketeering such crimes as murder, robbery, bribery, and arson, which normally are violations only of state law, thus permitting them to be investigated and prosecuted by federal officials in federal court. When criminal organizations operate in several states, their offenses would normally have to be prosecuted separately in the states of federal judicial districts where the individual crimes occurred; however, by defining these offenses as part of a single pattern, the entire pattern can be prosecuted together as a single crime in any federal district where one of the predicate acts occurred. Procedural rules limiting the joinder of crimes or of defendants in a single indictment are inapplicable once the separate crimes or offenders are conceptualized as part of a single "racketeering enterprise" jointly committing the same crime. Evidentiary rules that seek to avoid "guilt by association" or easy conviction of the "usual suspects" by limiting reference to a defendant's prior convictions, other criminal acts, or associations with other criminals or criminal organizations are similarly inapplicable where the commission of a number of crimes, in association with other members of an enterprise, is the very crime to be proved. Where the statute of limitations precludes prosecution of crimes committed years ago, those crimes may often still be made part of a lengthy pattern of racketeering offenses, so long as at least one predicate racketeering act was committed within the limitations period. These and other effects of defining the RICO pattern as a single crime have facilitated the prosecution of cases involving members of the Mafia and other criminal groups. Critics of RICO have charged that the resulting "megatrials" of large numbers of defendants for a wide variety of separate crimes have diluted traditional protections against wrongful conviction, by complicating the task of jurors; making trials longer, more burdensome, and more expensive for defendants; and by permitting unfair "spill-over" of inferences of guilt from one crime or defendant to other charges that are less well established, or to other defendants against whom the evidence is weak.

RICO has not been used only against organized crime groups. Because corporations, labor unions, and government offices are also "enterprises" as defined in RICO, the law has been used in cases of business fraud, labor corruption, and bribery of police or other government officials as well. In these cases, the criminal schemes are usually less wide-ranging than in the organized crime cases, and the cases typically could be brought within conventional procedural rules. However, the serious penalties available under RICO, including forfeiture remedies, and the increased stigma of a conviction for "racketeering," have made RICO an attractive tool for prosecutors in serious white-collar criminal cases. Critics of these prosecutions have pointed out that the expansive definition of a pattern of racketeering activity provides little if any definitional limitation on the kinds of fraud or corruption cases that can be brought under RICO, thus leaving the choice of which cases are "serious" enough to merit RICO penalties entirely to the discretion of prosecutors.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) - Origins, Crimes, Effects, Penalties, Civil Remedies, Influences, Bibliography