18 Sep 23

Federal RICO Charges: A Complex Area of Criminal Law

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Last Updated on: 29th September 2023, 12:15 pm


Federal RICO Charges: A Complex Area of Criminal Law

The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law is a complex area of criminal law that can be confusing to understand. This article aims to explain RICO charges in a simple, conversational way that a high school student would understand. We’ll discuss what RICO is, how it works, some key cases, and the implications of being charged under this law.

What is RICO?

RICO was passed in 1970 to help prosecutors go after organized crime groups, like the mafia. Before RICO, prosecutors could only charge individual mobsters with specific crimes they committed (like extortion or murder). But with RICO, they could take down the whole criminal organization by showing a pattern of illegal activity1.

RICO allows prosecutors to charge the leaders and members of a criminal enterprise for almost any crime committed as part of the enterprise. The law also has really harsh punishments, like up to 20 years in prison per count.

How Does RICO Work?

For a RICO charge, prosecutors have to show a few things2:

  • There is an ongoing criminal enterprise like a mob or gang
  • The defendants are connected to the enterprise in some way
  • The defendants committed at least 2 specific crimes (called predicate acts) as part of the enterprise within 10 years

The predicate acts can be almost any felony, including extortion, bribery, fraud, murder, kidnapping, arson, drug crimes, etc. Prosecutors try to show the defendants were operating as part of a pattern of racketeering activity.

Famous RICO Cases

Here are some of the most famous RICO cases over the years:

  • Gambino Crime Family – This was one of the first big mafia takedowns using RICO in the 1980s. More than 20 mobsters were convicted.3
  • Key West Police – In the 1980s, nearly the entire Key West Police Department was charged under RICO for running protection rackets and other corruption.4
  • Hells Angels – This notorious biker gang was indicted under RICO in 1979 for drugs, extortion, prostitution and contract killings.5
  • FIFA Soccer – In 2015, RICO charges were brought against FIFA officials for bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.6

As you can see, RICO has gone way beyond just prosecuting the mob, into all kinds of organizations.

RICO Charges and Sentences

Being charged under RICO is serious business. Here’s an overview of the possible penalties7:

  • Up to 20 years in prison per RICO count
  • Fines of up to $250,000 per count
  • Forfeiture of all assets connected to the criminal activity

In addition, RICO charges often come stacked on top of other serious federal felonies. So a defendant can easily be facing multiple decades behind bars if convicted.

That’s why having an experienced RICO defense attorney is so crucial. The complex web of laws around RICO means there are often angles to get charges reduced or dismissed. A good lawyer will thoroughly analyze the case to find the best defense strategy.

Pros and Cons of RICO

There’s a lot of debate around whether RICO is applied fairly by prosecutors. Here are some of the main pros and cons:


  • Allows prosecutors to take down entire criminal organizations
  • Harsh penalties deter serious organized crime
  • Provides compensation for victims


  • Broad application leads to abuse of power by prosecutors
  • Disproportionately targets minority groups
  • Weakens presumption of innocence for defendants
  • Civil forfeiture provisions are controversial

Many argue RICO gives too much leverage to prosecutors, leading to overcharging. But others say it’s a necessary tool to dismantle dangerous criminal enterprises. There are good arguments on both sides.

The Bottom Line

RICO remains one of the most potent weapons for federal prosecutors today. These complex charges can bring severe penalties and long prison sentences. That’s why anyone facing RICO prosecution needs an experienced criminal defense lawyer on their side.

The intricacies of RICO law offer opportunities for skilled attorneys to mount an effective defense. Don’t go it alone against the full force of the federal government. Get knowledgeable legal help right away if you or a loved one are charged under this law.

1. Criminal Resource Manual 109 – RICO Charges [↩]
2. RICO | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute [↩]
3. 19 in Gambino Family Are Indicted in Racketeering – The New York Times [↩]
4. Police Department Charged Under Racketeering Law [↩]
5. U.S. Jury Indicts 4 Leaders of Hell’s Angels : Used Violence to Control Club, Officials Say [↩]
6. FIFA Officials Face Corruption Charges in U.S. [↩]
7. RICO | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute [↩]