Racketeering Definition and Meaning
The RICO Act was created to crack down on organized criminal activity or racketeering. Under the RICO Act, the whole organization is held accountable for crimes committed, not just the organization members that committed the crime. This means that people in the upper reaches of a criminal organization will be held accountable for the activities they order.
What Is Racketeering?
Racketeering is a broad term that includes a number of criminal activities undertaken by an organization. The legal definition of racketeering is a crime that members of an organization may commit to extort community members for their protection. For example, they may commit kidnapping or arson and then offer their protection to businesses in the area to prevent their shops from being torched.
The following criminal activity may be racketeering:
- Trafficking a controlled substance/chemical
- Obstruction of justice
- Money laundering
- Human smuggling
- Embezzlement of union funds
- Dealing in obscene matter
- Dealing a controlled substance/chemical
- Criminal copyright infringement
- Commission of murder-for-hire
- Bankruptcy fraud or securities fraud
- Acts of terrorism
Conspiracy to do any of the above crimes is also charged as racketeering.
Racketeering is not limited to criminal organizations, unions, nonprofit organization, religious institutions, or politicians can be charged with racketeering if they participate in any of the above crimes.
Legal Elements of a Racketeering Charge
In order to be charged with racketeering under the RICO Act, there must be sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- An organization or enterprise exists
- Said organization or enterprise engages in interstate or foreign business activity (legal or illegal)
- The defendant is a member or employee of that organization or enterprise
- The defendant engaged in a pattern of racketeering (2 or more acts of racketeering within a 10 year period)
- The pattern of racketeering was done as part of your membership in the enterprise or on behalf of the enterprise
What Is the RICO Act?
The RICO Act of 1970 was designed to deal with organized crime like the Mafia, who were a serious threat of the time. When it was implemented, law enforcement was constantly arresting the thugs of the Mafia for crimes but unable to touch the families themselves who were purposefully keeping their hands clean. With the RICO Act, the law enforcement agencies were able to use the racketeering arrests of members of the Mafia to prosecute anyone involved in the crime, including giving the orders. It would hold the whole organization accountable, not just the person arrested.
The RICO Act is a federal law, and therefore, federal law enforcement agencies are responsible for making arrests. Anyone arrested for racketeering under the RICO Act will be prosecuted in federal court and, if convicted, will be sent to federal prison.
Racketeering charges are often charged on top of the normal criminal charges for the crime committed. The penalty for a racketeering charge can be up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. This can lead to long prison sentences and hefty fines when combined with the penalties for the crimes committed as racketeering.
On top of those penalties, the federal government can also seize any property acquired as a result of racketeering activities and any property bought by the profits of racketeering activities. Because of the steep penalties, the RICO Act is controversial. Many opposers believe that it should be amended or removed from law in order to protect people from racketeering charges who seem to be acting on behalf of the organization. There are also concerns that organizations can be penalized for the racketeering activity of extreme members who believe they are acting on behalf of the organization.
Legal Defenses to a RICO Racketeering Charge
If you are charged with racketeering under the RICO Act, hire a criminal defense attorney with experience in federal law and racketeering charges. This is a specific part of criminal law that not all criminal defense attorneys will know. It is also worth noting that federal and state legal procedures can be vastly different, which is why it is important to hire an attorney that is familiar with federal law. So, hire an attorney that is familiar with federal law and then, if you can afford it, one who is familiar with the RICO Act.
In order to defend against the racketeering charges, you need your attorney to be involved from the very start. They will help manage the situation in order to get the best outcome. They will monitor what law enforcement does in order to look for unlawful investigation. Your attorney will also inform you of what a racketeering charge means and the evidence against you. They will advise you throughout the process on the best way to either beat the charge or to get the charges minimized through co-operation if there is overwhelming evidence against you.
The best defenses to racketeering charges are to undermine one of the legal elements by introducing reasonable doubt or to show that law enforcement or the prosecutor are violating your legal rights.