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What is the Rico Statute?

By Matt Brady
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, or RICO statute, is a piece of United States federal legislation dedicated to breaking up organized crime. The law was designed to achieve that goal by targeting enterprises and individuals found to have engaged in patterns of racketeering activity. Under the statute, racketeering is legal terminology for the “act or threat of murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter, or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical.” The list continues, with other racketeering offenses ranging from the forgery of passports to mail fraud.

Under the far-reaching influence of the RICO statute, an enterprise or person can be convicted of and face charges for racketeering in any territory or possession of the US, allowing the act's authority to be exercised across all state lines as well as in areas such as Guam and Puerto Rico. Those charged under the law face fines, imprisonment, or both as well as the mandate to surrender to the federal government any enterprise and assets acquired by means of racketeering activity. Under this set of penalties, the federal government is not only able to prosecute crime syndicate bosses, but to prosecute criminal associates as well as seize the actual operations beneath them. This enables the statute to deal a considerable blow to the entirety of a corrupt organization.

Over time, the RICO statute has been used not only to target the Mafia’s crooked dealings, but any organization — legitimate or otherwise — engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity. This is particularly useful with organized crime syndicates that smokescreen themselves behind a wall of legitimate business structures. After the World Trade Center attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the law has also seen increased use in targeting terrorist enterprises.

The statute was also designed for civil cases, with the intent to function as a restorative tool for victims of racketeering. The law stipulates that individuals who have sustained injury to property or business due to racketeering activity may sue and are entitled to three times the amount of their losses. The extent to which the act can be interpreted by plaintiffs in civil RICO claims has led to some amount of fear and controversy, with critics leveling accusations that the law’s wording is too broad, particularly in the areas of mail and wire fraud, and can be used to unfairly seek damages from non-criminal enterprises.

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Discussion Comments
By anon967652 — On Aug 28, 2014

The RICO act is crap, plain and simple. The government loves to talk about how incredible it is that a bunch of uneducated, knuckle dragging thugs could control so many aspects of the economy. Isn't it equally incredible then, that the federal government, with all its resources couldn't stop them without completely rewriting the rules?

Take a good look at the RICO statute, or ask any law scholar. The guidelines are so broad and so vague, that they could be used against countless police departments, corrections departments, town, city, and state governments, small businesses, major corporations, etc. But they aren't. They are selectively enforced, used to persecute those who offend the feds, and who they aren't smart enough to catch under regular law.

By anon231912 — On Nov 28, 2011

I think the RICO act is a bunch of bull. How can this be called justice?

By goldenmist — On Jun 02, 2011

@softener - It’s true that the RICO act does have the potential to be unfair, but on the other hand before the RICO act the bosses of criminal organizations got away with murders and all kinds of other crimes. This is because before the RICO act the boss had to be caught in the middle of committing a crime in order to be convicted, while most of them had enough underlings that they never needed to do so, so they never got caught even though they were in charge of everything and made all of the big decisions.

By softener — On Jun 01, 2011

@Engelbert - You do have a point, but the RICO act applies to victims of organized crime as well. For example, imagine a problem gambler who owes a lot of money to a loan shark working for the mob. The loan shark forces you to “bust out” your business in order to pay him. In this scenario, the problem gambler could also be prosecuted under the RICO act and face a hefty sentence. This gives the gambler a strong incentive to testify against the mob because by doing so he’ll get offered immunity from the RICO act.

It’s true that this still puts him at risk of danger from the mob, but he might also be offered to be put in the Witness Protection Program. I guess the best thing to do would be not to get involved with loan sharks in the first thing, although that kind of goes without saying.

The law can be unfair though and unjust arrests can be made, such as in the case of the gambler who chooses not to testify.

By Engelbert — On May 30, 2011

The RICO act is an interesting piece of federal legislation. I think I agree with the principle of it but couldn’t the far-reaching influence of the RICO act lead to witnesses getting killed? I understand that in order for a defendant to be convicted of a felony he needs two witnesses, the main witness and a corroborating witness. With the RICO act only one witness is needed. Isn’t that putting a lot of pressure on one person? Isn’t this why gangsters tend to get away with murder for so long, because they just kill any potential witnesses?

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