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29 Nov 23

Can Racketeering Lead to Federal Prison Time?

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 11:32 am

Can Racketeering Lead to Federal Prison Time?

Racketeering is a serious federal crime that can definitely land someone in prison for a long time. The racketeering laws in the U.S. were originally designed to combat organized crime syndicates like the mafia. But they have also been used to prosecute many other types of criminal organizations and activities.

The main federal racketeering law is called RICO, which stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO makes it illegal to acquire or operate an enterprise through a pattern of criminal activity or collection of unlawful debt. An “enterprise” under RICO can be any business, organization, or group of associated individuals. The law is extremely broad.

What Activities Can Lead to a RICO Charge?

Prosecutors have used RICO to go after many different types of racketeering activities, including:

  • Murder, kidnapping, and other violent crimes committed by organized crime groups like the mafia or gangs
  • Drug trafficking operations
  • Money laundering schemes
  • Bribery and political corruption
  • Embezzlement and financial fraud crimes
  • Counterfeiting and intellectual property theft rings
  • Certain types of securities and investment fraud
  • Commercial bribery and bid rigging
  • Some environmental crimes
  • Sex trafficking and prostitution rings

Pretty much any sustained criminal activity or conspiracy can serve as the basis for a RICO charge if it brings in significant illegal profits.

Penalties for a RICO Conviction

Under RICO, a person convicted of racketeering can face up to 20 years in federal prison per racketeering count, plus hefty fines and asset forfeiture. That’s just for the RICO charge itself – additional sentences can be added for the underlying crimes that make up the pattern of racketeering activity.

The asset forfeiture provisions are also huge. RICO allows the government to seize any property connected to the criminal organization or bought with its illegal profits. This takes a major bite out of the financial infrastructure that supports organized criminal groups.

In addition, under RICO anyone injured by a RICO violation can file a civil lawsuit and recover treble (triple) damages. So victims of racketeering have a big incentive to sue.

Famous RICO Cases

Here are some of the most notable RICO prosecutions over the years:

  • Gambino Crime Family – RICO was used to convict numerous high-ranking members of New York’s Gambino mafia family in the 1980s and 90s, including boss John Gotti. Gotti himself was sentenced to life in prison without parole under RICO.
  • Latin Kings Gang – Over 100 members of this violent street gang were indicted on federal RICO charges for drug trafficking, assault, and murder across multiple states. Their kingpins faced decades in prison.
  • Key West Police Department – In the 1980s, RICO convictions took down a shockingly corrupt Key West police force that protected drug smuggling operations. Many officers went to federal prison.
  • FIFA Soccer Scandal – In 2015, RICO charges were filed against numerous senior FIFA officials for allegedly taking over $150 million in bribes. FIFA is the governing body for world soccer.
  • Catholic Church Sex Abuse – RICO lawsuits have been filed against multiple Catholic dioceses for allegedly covering up decades of child sexual abuse and moving around predator priests.
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These are just a few examples. RICO has also been used to disrupt violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, terrorism groups, investment fraudsters, drug cartels, waste disposal companies, and even a few state and city governments accused of widespread corruption.

Using RICO Against Protest Movements

In recent years, some politicians have proposed using RICO laws against protest movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and antifa. The idea is to classify these decentralized civil rights groups as racketeering organizations. But most legal experts say this would violate the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has ruled that RICO charges can’t be brought solely based on individuals exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. There has to be solid evidence connecting them to actual criminal conduct, not just protests. Trying to lump an entire movement together as a criminal “enterprise” would face major hurdles in court.

Civil liberties advocates argue that reckless RICO prosecutions would have a chilling effect and stifle legitimate dissent. They point to the history of the FBI targeting civil rights groups and activists during the 20th century under the guise of fighting racketeering. RICO charges could easily become politicized and used to harass or intimidate protestors.

However, if specific individuals used protests as a cover for violent criminal plots, they could still potentially face conspiracy or RICO charges on a case-by-case basis. But branding entire movements as racketeering enterprises would go too far for most legal scholars.

Possible Defenses in a RICO Case

Fighting a RICO charge is very difficult because the law is so broad. Typical defenses include:

  • No criminal enterprise – Argue the defendants were not associated together as an “enterprise” under RICO.
  • No pattern – Argue the alleged criminal acts do not amount to a “pattern of racketeering activity” as defined by RICO case law.
  • Statute of limitations – If the last racketeering act falls outside the 5-year statute of limitations, it can defeat the RICO charge.
  • Lack of intent – Argue the defendant did not knowingly agree to join in the criminal enterprise or conspiracy.
  • Unconstitutional vagueness – Argue that RICO violates due process by being overly vague in its definition of racketeering.

Pleading insanity, diminished mental capacity, duress, or entrapment defenses can also sometimes work. But RICO cases often involve long federal prison sentences upon conviction, so the stakes are extremely high.

The Controversial Power of RICO

Defense lawyers and civil liberties groups have criticized RICO laws for their harsh penalties, loose definitions, and use against protest movements. But prosecutors credit RICO with crushing the mafia and allowing complex, multi-layered criminal networks to be taken down in one fell swoop.

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The bottom line is that RICO remains a fearsome weapon for federal authorities to deploy against any individual or entity they can plausibly link to organized criminal activity. So yes, racketeering most certainly can lead to very substantial federal prison time for anyone caught in RICO’s broad net.