What is RICO?

“RICO” is an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a United States federal law enacted in 1970 that criminalizes acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.  RICO differs slightly from other criminal organization crimes in that it focuses mainly on “racketeering,” which is a pattern of illegal activity carried on by an  organization (a “racket”) that typically involves the extortion of money, influence or some other type of advantage through the use of force or threat of force.

This is also why the RICO statutes are often referred to as “mob laws.”  In the legal sense, racketeering usually refers to crimes involving murder, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, kidnapping, sex trafficking and similar offenses.  While, the main RICO statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1962, was originally enacted to combat organized crime (i.e. Mafia), its been applied to a broader array of organized criminal enterprises over the past several decades.    

Understanding Racketeering and Its Common Schemes

Racketeering can take many forms. Historically most rackets participated in crimes that were blatantly illegal, such as prostitution, human trafficking, drug trafficking and the like. However, as of late, cyber racketeering has become more and more prominent. Cyber racketeering can include things such as internet hacker groups that illegally push malware onto a user’s computer, which blocks all access by the user to the computer and to the data stored on it. The hackers then demand a sum of money in order to unlock the computer’s access.

Rackets can also include “protection rackets.”  Protection rackets are when an individual or group of individuals cause harm or threaten to cause harm to a business or its owner if the owner does not pay a protection fee.  These are just some examples of activity that could be considered racketeering. Below are some additional common racketeering schemes:

RICO and Gambling – RICO makes it a federal crime to conduct an illegal gambling enterprise. Keep in mind that owning, operating or financing a gambling business that is not sanctioned by state or federal law is a crime in and of itself, and can provide the basis for adding RICO charges to that underlying crime.  A separate federal law that banned illegal gambling and gaming, the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA) was passed in 1955. IGBA along with RICO can apply to all facets of gambling and gaming: sports bribery, money laundering, and other illegal gambling rings.

RICO and Murder – Murder intersects with the RICO statute most often when it comes to violent gang activity. A murder charge can also easily be the predicate criminal activity used to bring RICO charges, especially if it was the means used to threaten someone else into compliance. As long as the members of the gang meet all elements of the statue, a federal prosecutor can charge the entire racket under RICO, as well as assess all accompanying RICO penalties. If a RICO defendant is convicted of the underlying murder charges, the penalties can supersede the maximum 20-year sentence under RICO.

RICO and Kidnapping – Kidnapping in aid of racketeering is another common charge brought under the RICO statute. 18 U.S. Code § 1959, specifically provides that any individual found guilty of committing a violent offense (such as kidnapping) in order to further the racketeering activity can be charged under this code section. Often times violent criminals will use kidnapping for ransom as their main scare tactic, in order to get individuals or business to give them what they want.

Prosecuting RICO Crimes

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) can spend years building up RICO charges against a target defendant. In order to be convicted under the RICO statute, the prosecution must prove:

(1) a criminal enterprise existed,
(2) the enterprise affected interstate commerce,
(3) the defendant was employed by or associated with the enterprise,
(4) the defendant engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity, and
(5) the defendant conducted, or participated in the conduct of the enterprise, through that pattern of racketeering activity. 

RICO charges are not always easy to prove and often survive or fail on the smallest of details.  For example, the law requires that a “pattern of racketeering activity” be present. According to the DOJ a “pattern” requires at least two acts of racketeering activity committed within ten years of each other. 

The racketeering events must be related to each other, meaning they must have the same or similar purpose, results, participants, victims, methods of commission or by other means that establish they are not isolated events. The government must also prove that the conduct continued over a period of time or that the threat of long-term activity exists.

Penalties for RICO Convictions

The RICO statute allows federal law enforcement agents to file charges against the whole racket. Once individuals are indicted, law enforcement can then seize the property and assets of those named in the indictment, preventing the racket to continue or to hide assets. The maximum punishment for an individual convicted under the RICO statute is 20 years in prison (or life if the predicate act, such as murder, permits) and a fine of up to $250,000, or twice the proceeds of the offense.

RICO law requires that defendants must forfeit to the United States government any proceeds or property gained from the illegal enterprise activity, but also any interests the defendant holds in the enterprise. For example, if a corporate executive were brought up on RICO charges for defrauding customers, the law would require that the executive not only forfeit any money made from the fraud scheme, but also his stake in the entire company.

If you find yourself facing RICO charges, you should contact an attorney immediately. These types of cases can take months, even years to prosecute, and you should waste no time on the opportunity to build a defense. An attorney with an in-depth knowledge of the federal laws, as well as a sophisticated understanding of the federal criminal justice system is critical. The experienced attorneys at The Federal Defenders have significant experience and knowledge with RICO and can help you navigate the justice system to obtain the best possible outcome in your case.


The law is very nuanced. Federal prosecutors have almost unlimited advantages and resources at their disposal. Having attorneys on your team that understand the law, keep abreast of legal developments in the law, have the experience dealing with the complexities of federal statutes and, finally, possess the skills to stand before a jury to make a compelling case on behalf of a client are not just important qualities, they’re critical. At The Federal Defenders. we pride ourselves on being advocates for our clients. With decades of experience with all variety and manner of federal criminal issues and defenses, we understand what it takes to put our clients in a winning position. For a free and confidential consultation, call us today at (800) 712-0000. Just like our toll-free number, we operate nationwide.