In the 1970s, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Statute (the RICO Act) was passed to create penalties for criminal organizations. At the time, Mafia crime syndicates were increasing in power and influence and the types of crimes they engaged in were on the rise.
How Does the RICO Act Work?
Rather than busting small-time criminals for minor crimes, this act targets patterns of criminal behavior on a large scale over time.
This is effective for taking on Mafia groups because criminal organizations routinely engage in certain crimes in order to generate profits. These crimes are sometimes referred to as “rackets”, which is the origin of the term racketeering.
If a group of people vandalize and deface a store, that act might be considered an isolated incident. However, if that group of people damaged the store in order to intimidate the owner into paying “protection” money, there might be a criminal organization calling the shots.
If a group of stores in one area are repeatedly vandalized for this purpose over a period of time, investigations might be launched for evidence of RICO violations.
If a person or group of people is found guilty of engaging in repeated criminal activities over the course of time for the purpose of furthering a criminal organization, they may be subject to RICO penalties. Some penalty examples:
- Each count may carry a sentence of up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary, as well as up to a $25,000 fine.
- For some crimes, the financial penalty can be increased to $250,000 per count.
- The complex nature of these cases means that one person can receive multiple convictions based on their level of involvement in a criminal organization. Life imprisonment without parole is a very real possibility.
In order for a conviction to be secured, the court must prove that the accused person deliberately engaged in activities that were intended to further the goals of a criminal enterprise. A common legal defense is to argue that the defendant had no knowledge that their activities were being used to help a criminal group.