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If there is one area of criminal law that has, at times, been hard to prosecute as well as authorities would have liked, it has been organized crime. In years past, various loopholes in laws allowed mob bosses to escape prosecution for activities they ordered, yet were actually carried out by their associates. To stop this, Congress passed the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Usually referred to as RICO, this law now provides the essentials prosecutors need to pursue and convict those in charge of organized crime groups.
Since organized crime can encompass many different types of crimes, RICO laws have been written so they pertain to many types of criminal offenses. Under RICO, individuals cannot establish, operate, or acquire an enterprise with income that was obtained illegally. In addition, they cannot acquire or maintain control of an enterprise through illegal activity, nor can they use any type of enterprise to commit illegal acts. By having RICO laws at their disposal, prosecutors are in a much better position to bring charges against organized crime bosses, since these laws essentially eliminate the defendant’s ability to claim plausible deniability.
Though there are numerous state laws that make many types of criminal enterprises illegal, it has been the RICO laws that have allowed law enforcement and prosecutors to eliminate criminal empires that often span multiple jurisdictions. As for which crimes fall under RICO, three of the most common include bribery, blackmail, and extortion. Moreover, businesses and organizations used as fronts for organized crime activities can also be prosecuted under RICO. Examples of this can include bars that serve as fronts for illegal gambling operations, massage parlors that are really illegal brothels, and construction companies or other businesses created mainly for the purpose of money laundering.
When a defendant is convicted of racketeering, RICO offers much leeway regarding the punishments for various crimes. If a defendant is sentenced to prison, their sentence is not allowed to exceed 20 years. Additionally, any property obtained as a result of illegal activity must be forfeited. Finally, if fines are part of the sentence, they are not allowed to exceed more than twice the amount of proceeds obtained through the defendant’s illegal activities.
Considered some of the strictest and harshest in criminal law, sentencing guidelines for racketeering aim to send a strong message to other members of organized crime. For example, even though 20 years is generally the maximum prison sentence in most cases, a life sentence may be imposed if any underlying activities associated with the racketeering have this option. Also, should the court not be able to locate property obtained illegally, it can order the defendant to forfeit any or all of their remaining property.
In most racketeering cases, the statute of limitations is a somewhat short five years. Under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, no individual is allowed to be prosecuted, put on trial, or punished for non-capital offenses unless done so within five years. However, since criminal cases that involve racketeering are often very complex and encompass many different types of criminal activities, these activities are often found not to be protected by the short statute of limitations found in Title 18. When this occurs, prosecutors can sometimes bring charges against heads of organized crime empires decades later if necessary.
Though found mostly in large cities across the United States, organized crime can, in fact, take hold almost anywhere. Indeed, many businesses used as fronts for organized crime activities are often located in smaller cities, as this can make them appear less conspicuous to authorities. Because of this, many organized crime organizations have been able to operate for decades before prosecutors can gather enough evidence to bring charges under RICO. However, as laws such as RICO have now criminalized income generated to sustain these organizations, authorities are much better positioned to dismantle these groups and make many high-level arrests, as was the case with the well-known mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger in Boston.
Places such as New York City, Boston, and Chicago look a lot different than they did 50 years ago. Back then, these cities served as headquarters for some of the most ruthless mafia families that America has ever seen. They ruled the streets from the mid-1930s until the early 1980s. Their activities had gotten so bad that the federal government drafted legislation specifically to end the racketeering crimes for which the mob was famous. In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act which made organized crimes such as money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and bribery easier to prosecute.
Fast forward to today. You’ll see that America hasn’t completely eradicated organized crime within its borders. While the faces of the mob have changed, the same crimes are still being committed, and they’ve become even more sophisticated thanks to advancements in technology.
The RICO Act is still relevant, and here are some cases that show why.
While mafia crime families were the main inspiration for the RICO Act, the first group of criminals to be impacted by the legislation were the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. The biker thugs are known for trafficking in drugs and guns. In 1979, U.S. prosecutors targeted Ralph Hubert “Sonny” Barger, who is the founding member of the Hell’s Angels Oakland chapter. He and some of his associates were charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy to transport explosives with the intent to harm people and structures.
According to the jury, there was no evidence that proved that Sonny Barger committed those crimes as part of his membership in the Hell’s Angels organization. Federal investigators combed through years of minutes from the Hell’s Angels’ meetings and found no evidence that drug trafficking, gunrunning, terrorism, or arson was part of the gang’s policy. However, several members of the Hell’s Angels gang were indicted on drug trafficking charges as individuals.
If federal prosecutors had proven that Sonny Barger and company had committed criminal acts on behalf of the Hell’s Angels organization, he and his associates would have faced maximum 20-year prison penalties for each count.
Major League Baseball (MLB) was involved in a civil RICO case with the Montreal Expos back in 2001. The owner of the Montreal Expos accused the MLB commissioner and the previous Montreal Expos owner of devaluing the team for personal profit before moving the team to Washington. The owner of the Montreal Expos sought monetary compensation for damages to the tune of $300 million dollars. Instead of going to trial, the two parties turned to arbitration for a remedy.
According to the arbitration findings, the MLB didn’t violate the RICO Act. In order for a plaintiff to win a civil RICO case, he or she has to prove that the defendant committed a RICO crime such as fraud, bribery, or money laundering. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant has a pattern of committing these types of crimes. There’s also a four-year statute of limitations on civil RICO cases. If a civil RICO case isn’t filed within 4 years of the discovered damage, the plaintiff can’t claim monetary damages.
The owner of the Montreal Expos didn’t bring a strong enough case against the MLB and the team’s former owner.
If a plaintiff wins a civil RICO case, he or she is eligible for three times the amount of the initially quoted damages. Unfortunately, for the Montreal Expos the arbitration ruling was in favor of the MLB.
The RICO case involving the Genovese crime family of New York dates back to 2018. Law enforcement had been watching members of the Genovese crime family for over a decade to gather enough evidence to prosecute the family crime bosses and minions according to the terms of the RICO Act. Members of the family committed multiple financial crimes from 2001 to 2017.
Vincent Esposito, Steven Arena, and Vincent D’Acunto extorted cash payments from a labor union official for several years after threatening the union officer with job loss and bodily harm. Frank Cognetta, who is another Genovese family member, used his position as a union officer to solicit and accept bribes. He also directed union benefits plans into investments that provided him with financial rewards or kickbacks.
According to case law, RICO violations happen when people commit racketeering activities in relation to a business. To charge an individual with a RICO violation, prosecutors must show that the person demonstrates a pattern of committing racketeering crimes. By law, the pattern is established after two instances of racketeering crimes. In the Genovese crime family case, the members committed numerous racketeering activities between 2001 and 2017.
Five members of the Genovese crime family were charged with RICO conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Three of the five members were also charged with extortion conspiracy, which added another maximum 20-year prison penalty. One of the five indicted family members racked up a maximum penalty of 126 years in prison for multiple counts of honest services fraud, conspiracy, and bribery.
You only need to be an ardent student of history and an observant person to notice that organized crime did not die with the likes of John Gotti, Lucky Luciano, and Whitey Bulger. While today’s organized crime participants don’t have the name recognition of the crime bosses of the past, they are just as troublesome and seemingly more abundant. It makes one wonder if the old mafia families of yesteryear simply took their operations behind closed doors instead of being driven out of business as most people assume happened.
RICO – the Federal Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations Act is believed to be a law meant to deal with the mafia.
Although that was the initial intention, today the law is being applied in cases that involve organizations that few people would think to be the mafia.
The original purpose of RICO was to ensure that high-ranking members of Mafia groups are prosecuted. In the past, prosecutors used to get convictions for members of lower ranks who were involved in criminal activities.
However, they found it hard to prosecute senior members who were responsible for the actual crimes.
RICO was an opportunity for the office of the U.S. Attorney to easily prosecute members of the mafia for the criminal activities of their associates.
A criminal enterprise is any organization or group of people that work together for a long time with a structure where one or several people are responsible for making the decisions affecting the organization. The enterprise can either be a legal or illegal entity.
This implies that members of the group must have involved in continuous illegal activities. They also must have committed at least two crimes in two separate and unrelated incidences. In other words, there must be some of a scheme of criminal activities.
This refers to anything that affects commerce – when the effect of the activity is not limited to a single state.
Not everyone found engaged in criminal activities can be charged using RICO laws. The law stipulates certain criminal activities. Predicate crimes are criminal activities that can prompt RICO charges.
Below are examples of some of the charges:
This list is however not conclusive. As seen from the list, RICO charges can cut across a wide range of criminal activities including white-collar crimes.
RICO charges attract stiff penalties and sometimes appear to go against certain rights embedded in the constitution.
As a result, the U.S. Attorney only uses RICO in special circumstances. Charges can only be instituted if the following conditions are met:
If you receive a call or notification you are being suspected or charged for RICO crimes, then the first thing you need to do is to contact your lawyer.
RICO offenses are serious in nature and you cannot try to defend yourself without the help of an experienced lawyer.
This is because RICO charges can attract many years in prison as well as large amounts of fines.
Besides, RICO can also be used as a basis to launch civil lawsuits. If you lose a civil RICO lawsuit, you will definitely end up paying three times the normal charges.
For example, if a jury comes to the conclusion that you embezzled $3,000, you will have to pay $6,000. In most cases, you will not have a choice but to pay since you won’t be given a chance to contest the decision.
In a nutshell, RICO offenses are serious crimes that no one should play around with. The charges can attract several years in prison and hefty fines.
In case you find yourself in such a situation, the best thing to do is to find a good and experienced attorney to take you through each step.
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