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Racketeering/RICO

Racketeering is when organized groups run illegal businesses, known as “rackets,” or when an organized crime ring uses legitimate organizations to embezzle funds. Such activities can have devastating consequences for both public and private institutions. Consequently, the federal government and numerous state governments have created systems of laws designed to prosecute these criminals.

Typical Rackets and Their Consequences

Most older forms of rackets dealt in industries that were clearly illegal, such as prostitution or sex trafficking, drug trafficking, illegal weapons trafficking, and counterfeiting. These “businesses” organized large groups of people to help keep the racket profitable and covert, allowing them to make illegal products available to the public quickly and in such large amounts that authorities couldn’t make all the necessary arrests and prosecutions.

Over time, organized crime gradually entered other kinds of businesses. Mob bosses used labor unions to steal funds from workers' pension plans and other benefits accounts. When organized crime operatives rise up the corporate ranks, they can rob corporations through various white collar criminal methods, potentially ruining the companies along with the shareholders and employees who depend on them.

Using RICO to Prosecute Racketeers

Before Congress enacted laws that specifically combat organized crime, prosecutors found it very difficult to end these rackets. Prosecutors could often convict the lower ranked members of the organizations, because they were the ones who actually performed the illegal activities. However, the masterminds behind the organized crime rings were often much harder to prosecute because they couldn’t be directly connected to any of the crimes.

In 1978, Congress enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, providing prosecutors with the tool they needed to fight organized crime. Many states have enacted similar laws. In order to convict someone under RICO or a state equivalent, it’s no longer necessary to prove the suspect personally committed an illegal activity. Instead, prosecutors must prove:

·         The defendant owns and/or manages an organization;

·         The organization regularly performs one or more specific illegal activity.

Although RICO was initially enacted to prosecute famous crime rings it has also been used in many other scenarios. For example, RICO charges were brought against pro-life activists for illegally blocking the entrance to abortion clinics.  In another instance, members of the Catholic Church sued several clergy men under RICO for reportedly allowing priests to molest children. Since it has such far-reaching implications, RICO remains a controversial law even as it continues to aid in prosecutions across the US.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on criminal charges and procedure.

 

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