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RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act)


The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a controversial and innovative federal penal statute. Adopted as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, RICO created several new crimes, revived the concept of property forfeiture as a punishment for crimes, and instituted a new civil cause of action that has generated a large volume of litigation.


RICO grew out of concern about the infiltration of legitimate institutions by organized crime. After this problem was highlighted in the 1967 report of a presidential commission on crime, a number of bills were introduced in Congress that would have prohibited the investment of money derived from criminal activities into a legitimate business. In addition to making such investment a crime, these bills used the model of the anti-trust laws to permit civil law suits by businesses injured by such infiltration, and to divest criminals of their ill-gotten interests in legitimate businesses by requiring forfeiture of those interests to the government. Aspects of several such bills were eventually combined into what ultimately passed as RICO. The actual language adopted by Congress, however, was susceptible to much broader application.


RICO's broadest and most-used section prohibits conducting the affairs of any "enterprise" (defined broadly to include just about any form of human endeavor) through a "pattern of racketeering activity" (defined as two or more criminal acts from an extremely broad list, that are related to each other, that do or threaten to persist over a period of time). This language makes it a crime for those with a significant role in operating any business, government office, labor union, social or political organization, or informal grouping to commit a series of crimes in furtherance of that organization's goals or by using the organization's resources. Indeed, since the Supreme Court has held that enterprises are covered whether or not they are legitimate (United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576 (1981)), RICO permits the prosecution of members of an organized crime family or other criminal gang or association for conducting its affairs.

Other new crimes created by RICO, which have been rarely used by prosecutors, derive from the original concept of preventing criminal elements from gaining entry into legitimate business. The relevant provisions prohibit acquiring or maintaining an interest in any "enterprise" (other than by purchase of a trivial interest via the stock market), by investing the proceeds of loansharking or a pattern of racketeering activity (for example, investing the profits from narcotics dealing in a legitimate business), or by using such criminal means (for example, by the use of threats of violence to extort an interest in a business from its owner). In addition, RICO also prohibits conspiring to commit any of these new crimes.


One might wonder what is valuable or innovative about prohibiting actions that are by definition already crimes. The answer is largely procedural. By defining as a single offense the commission of a series of distinct crimes, RICO avoids a variety of traditional procedural, evidentiary, and jurisdictional rules that tend to discourage prosecuting separate offenses together. For example, RICO includes as "predicate acts" that may form part of a pattern of racketeering such crimes as murder, robbery, bribery, and arson, which normally are violations only of state law, thus permitting them to be investigated and prosecuted by federal officials in federal court. When criminal organizations operate in several states, their offenses would normally have to be prosecuted separately in the states of federal judicial districts where the individual crimes occurred; however, by defining these offenses as part of a single pattern, the entire pattern can be prosecuted together as a single crime in any federal district where one of the predicate acts occurred. Procedural rules limiting the joinder of crimes or of defendants in a single indictment are inapplicable once the separate crimes or offenders are conceptualized as part of a single "racketeering enterprise" jointly committing the same crime. Evidentiary rules that seek to avoid "guilt by association" or easy conviction of the "usual suspects" by limiting reference to a defendant's prior convictions, other criminal acts, or associations with other criminals or criminal organizations are similarly inapplicable where the commission of a number of crimes, in association with other members of an enterprise, is the very crime to be proved. Where the statute of limitations precludes prosecution of crimes committed years ago, those crimes may often still be made part of a lengthy pattern of racketeering offenses, so long as at least one predicate racketeering act was committed within the limitations period. These and other effects of defining the RICO pattern as a single crime have facilitated the prosecution of cases involving members of the Mafia and other criminal groups. Critics of RICO have charged that the resulting "megatrials" of large numbers of defendants for a wide variety of separate crimes have diluted traditional protections against wrongful conviction, by complicating the task of jurors; making trials longer, more burdensome, and more expensive for defendants; and by permitting unfair "spill-over" of inferences of guilt from one crime or defendant to other charges that are less well established, or to other defendants against whom the evidence is weak.

RICO has not been used only against organized crime groups. Because corporations, labor unions, and government offices are also "enterprises" as defined in RICO, the law has been used in cases of business fraud, labor corruption, and bribery of police or other government officials as well. In these cases, the criminal schemes are usually less wide-ranging than in the organized crime cases, and the cases typically could be brought within conventional procedural rules. However, the serious penalties available under RICO, including forfeiture remedies, and the increased stigma of a conviction for "racketeering," have made RICO an attractive tool for prosecutors in serious white-collar criminal cases. Critics of these prosecutions have pointed out that the expansive definition of a pattern of racketeering activity provides little if any definitional limitation on the kinds of fraud or corruption cases that can be brought under RICO, thus leaving the choice of which cases are "serious" enough to merit RICO penalties entirely to the discretion of prosecutors.


RICO authorizes severe penalties of fine and imprisonment. The maximum punishment for an individual on a single RICO charge is imprisonment for twenty years (life if any of the predicate acts charged, such as murder, would permit such a punishment), and a fine of $250,000 or twice the proceeds of the offense. In addition, RICO revived the punishment of forfeiture of property, which before 1970 had been little used in American criminal law.

RICO imposes, as a mandatory penalty, a judgment of forfeiture to the United States government not only of any proceeds or property derived from the proceeds of the crime, but also of any interest the defendant holds in the enterprise, or any property of any kind that provides a source of influence over the enterprise. The latter provisions, rooted in the statute's original purpose of preventing criminal control of legitimate business, aim not only to punish the offender, but also to deny continuing power over an enterprise to anyone who has corrupted it to criminal ends.

Such forfeitures can be extremely harsh, and even disproportionate to the offense. For example, if an executive defrauds a number of customers of one division of a giant corporation, the forfeiture would encompass all of the offender's stockholdings in the company, whether the dollar value of those holdings was large or small in proportion to the losses caused by the fraud. In one Supreme Court case, the proprietor of an adult bookstore, convicted under RICO for selling a number of obscene books, forfeited to the government his entire store, including a large volume of nonobscene material. The Court held that since all the books were now property of the government, they could be destroyed, whether or not they were obscene (Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544 (1993)).

A number of procedural provisions relating to forfeiture increase the impact of the forfeiture remedy. For example, RICO permits the government to obtain a restraining order in advance of trial, freezing any of the defendant's assets that are subject to forfeiture. Thus, before a jury has evaluated the case against the defendant, he can be deprived of the use of his property, and hampered from using that property to obtain legal counsel. Moreover, a judgment of forfeiture "relates back" to the time the property was obtained. Thus, if the court eventually finds that property was obtained by means of a RICO violation, the property is declared to have been the government's from the moment the violation occurred. Consequently, it can be recovered not only from the defendant, but also from anyone else to whom it had been transferred. Even someone who received a bona fide payment for legitimate goods or services from funds held to be racketeering proceeds would lose them to the government, unless he or she had no reasonable cause to believe that the property was forfeitable. Since defense lawyers in particular are on notice that the government has brought racketeering charges, legal fees paid to them could be recovered by the government. This possibility can complicate a RICO defendant's ability to retain counsel.

Civil remedies

In addition to these criminal law provisions, RICO also authorizes civil suits, both by the government and by private individuals who are economically injured by a RICO violation. (Somewhat curiously, no provision is made for suits by plaintiffs who were physically injured by racketeering acts.)

The government has found civil RICO to be a valuable tool against labor racketeering and other forms of criminal corruption. Once the government establishes that an enterprise has been the subject of RICO offenses, courts are permitted to enter wide-ranging equitable orders, including banning individuals from participating in the management of the enterprise, or reorganizing or even dissolving the enterprise itself. Unlike these provisions, corrupt labor unions have been ordered to democratize, and to operate under the supervision of court-appointed independent monitors with the power to investigate its affairs, and officials found to be corrupt or to have associated with organized crime have been banned from holding union office.

Private civil actions under RICO have become extremely common and extremely controversial. Unlike most ordinary civil suits, suits for violation of RICO permit recovery not merely of compensation for losses, but for treble damages and attorneys' fees. The attraction of these enhanced remedies, as well as of obtaining access to federal court, has led plaintiffs in ordinary business disputes to exercise considerable ingenuity to cast their claims not in ordinary terms of contract, tort, or common law fraud, but as violations of the federal mail, wire, bank, and securities fraud statutes, which are predicate acts under RICO. The broad coverage of these statutes permits many claims to be formulated in this fashion, leading to the escalation of many ordinary business disputes into "racketeering" cases. (Such claims became so widespread in the securities industry that Congress amended RICO in 1995 to prohibit civil suits based on securities fraud, except where the defendants had previously been criminally convicted.)

Civil RICO actions have also been brought against political activist groups, such as anti-abortion demonstrators and animal rights activists, whose tactics sometimes verge on or cross over into violence (National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler, 510 U.S. 249 (1994)). Critics of such actions argue that the potential for imposing extensive litigation costs and treble damages on activists who may have a tenuous connection to actual perpetrators of violence, poses a threat to legitimate dissent. Defenders point out the violent activity is as dangerous in pursuit of a political enterprise as of an economic one, and that RICO actions can be an effective tool against organizations that encourage terrorism.


RICO was little noticed, and little used, in the first ten years after its adoption. During the 1980s, however, as prosecutors and civil plaintiffs discovered its potential, the number of RICO cases increased dramatically. The many successful RICO prosecutions of organized crime figures and corrupt civil servants and businessmen, and the use of civil RICO as a tool of labor law reform, provided significant law enforcement benefits. Moreover, RICO has had an influence in the creation of other laws. The use of forfeiture as a punishment for crime, pioneered in RICO, has been extended more broadly to narcotics and money laundering offenses. The extensive use of RICO forfeiture also led to a renewal of interest in civil forfeiture remedies, which have also been greatly expanded. RICO's original concern with the introduction of criminal proceeds into the legitimate economy was developed further in the money-laundering statutes, which also follow the RICO pattern of using traditional crimes as the predicates for more complex prohibitions. Finally, the increased use of proactive investigative techniques, such as electronic surveillance and infiltration by undercover agents and informants, coupled with RICO prosecutions that present the results of such investigations in full context, has contributed to a more effective understanding of crime in terms of enterprises and criminal careers, rather than simply as isolated instances of illegal behavior.

On the debit side, RICO is complex and overbroad. The private civil action has generated excessive litigation, while having little effect on serious criminal conduct. Because RICO defines its prohibitions not in terms of specific behaviors, but in terms of differing relationships of broad abstract concepts like the "enterprise" and the "pattern of racketeering," its coverage is broad and somewhat elusive. In the area of fraud and corruption cases, the severe penalties and federal jurisdiction provided by RICO can be invoked or declined by prosecutors almost at will. Even with respect to criminal groups, the existence of an organized enterprise, as distinct from shifting combinations of loosely acquainted offenders who join and dissolve to commit ad hoc, opportunistic offenses, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. It is hardly clear that the severe penalties and dangerous dilutions of traditional procedural rights are justified in all such cases.

Gerard E. Lynch

See also Blackmail and Extortion; Civil and Criminal Divide; Conspiracy; Criminal Careers; Federal Criminal Law Enforcement; Guns, Regulation of; Organized Crime; White-Collar Crime: History of an Idea.


Blakey, G. Robert. "Foreword to Symposium: The Twentieth Anniversary of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act: Debunkers RICO's Myriad Myths." St. John's Law Review 701, no. 64 (1990).

Blakey, G. Robert, and Gettings, B. "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Basic ConceptsCriminal and Civil Remedies." Temple Law Quarterly 1009, no. 53 (1980).

Brenner, Susan W. "RICO, LLE, and Other Complex Crimes: The Transformation of Criminal Law." 2 vol. Bill of Rights Journal 239 (1993).

Coffey, Paul E. "The Selection, Analysis and Approval of Federal RICO Prosecutors." Notre Dame Law Review 1035, no. 65 (1990).

Lynch, Gerard E. "RICO: The Crime of Being a Criminal." Parts 1 and 2: Columbia Law Review 87 (1987): 661. Parts 3 and 4: Columbia Law Review 87 (1987): 920.

Tarlow, Barry. "RICO Revisited." Georgia Law Review 291, no. 17 (1983).

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RICO. In 1970, Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act, Title Nine of which is called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. RICO was the outgrowth of congressional studies of organized crime and the recommendations of a presidential commission. Although RICO was endorsed by President Richard Nixon and the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns with its possible use against antiwar protesters.

The study of the Mafia was the occasion for RICO's enactment, but the statute is not limited to the classic mobster; it applies to all persons who engage in "patterns" of "predicate crimes" committed by, through, or against "enterprises" including legitimate and illegitimate organizations. Its "predicate crimes" include violence, such as murder, the provision of illegal goods or services, such as drugs, corruption in labor unions and government, such as extortion bribery, and commercial fraud, such as securities. Its criminal sanctions include fines, imprisonment, and forfeitures; its civil sanctions include injunctions, treble damages, and attorney fees for those injured in their property.

At first, the Department of Justice moved slowly to implement criminal RICO. By the end of the twentieth century, however, it was the prosecutor's tool of choice against sophisticated forms of crime. Of the 150 RICO prosecutions brought each year out of the 50,000-plus criminal prosecutions, 48 percent are brought in the area of white-collar crime (such as political corruption and Wall Street fraud), 39 percent are brought in the area of organized crime (not just the Mafia, but drug organizations, and so on.), and 13 percent are brought in the area of violent crimes (street gangs, white hate groups). Members of Congress, governors, mayors, and other governmental figures have been convicted under RICO. Wall Street securities firms have been convicted. Significant criminal groups (Mafia families, drug organizations, and white-hate groups) have been put out of business.

While RICO is not limited to the Mafia, it was one of RICO's targets. The Mafia's membership in the United States in 1963 was approximately 5,000 people, 2,500 of whom were in five families in New York City; 300 or more were in one family in Chicago. The other sixteen families were found in major cities throughout the nation. Not equal in power or status, the Mafia families were under the jurisdiction of a "commission," composed of the heads of four families in New York City and the bosses of the families in Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

The Mafia of the early twenty-first century is a tattered remnant of the 1963 organization. Membership is down to 1,150; 750 are in New York City, where the five families are mere shells; 40 to 50 are in Chicago. Segments of the economy that were once infiltrated by the Mafia (such as the garment industry in New York or its fish market) are now free of criminal domination. Garbage removal is now competitive. The families in cities besides New York and Chicago are basically destroyed, reduced to little more than street gangs. The reasons are variousdeath, old age, the rise of rival groups, changes in economic and social lifebut most significant, law enforcement pressure brought about by criminal and civil prosecutions under RICO, the wiretapping of criminal conversations for evidence in court cases, and the witness protection program, which helps convince insiders to turn against higher figures in the family without fear of retribution. As of 2002, the "commission" had not met in ten years. In short, the Mafia no longer possessed any edge in an underworld teeming with Asians, Russians, South Americans, and others of varied ethnic background.

The Department of Justice also moved slowly to use RICO's civil provisions, it is using its injunctive provisions to deal with Mafia-dominated unions, placing them in trusteeships and forcing democratic elections. Federal courts are requiring reforms designed to weed out criminal influence in the Teamsters Union, the Hotel and Restaurants Worker's Union, the Laborer's Union, and the Longshoremen's Union.

RICO's private treble damage provisions were largely ignored until about 1985. When they were first used, a firestorm of controversy broke out. Objections were made to RICO's use beyond "organized crime" in "garden variety fraud." Fear was expressed that the statute would open a "floodgate" of new litigation and inundate already crowded court dockets. In H. J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the scope of RICO's "pattern" requirement, holding that it is limited to systematic conduct, not isolated acts. Civil suits occur at about 750 per year out of about 275,000 civil filings. The flood did not happen.

Repeatedly challenged in court, RICO has been uniformly upheld. Defense attorneys sought to limit it to "organized crime." In its H. J. Inc. decision, the Supreme Court held: "The occasion for Congress' action was the perceived need to combat organized crime. But Congress for cogent reasons chose to enact a more general statute. Congress drafted RICO broadly enough to encompass a wide range of criminal activity, taking many different forms and likely to attract a broad array of perpetrators." Defense lawyers, too, challenged its forfeiture provisions, alleging that they interfere with a defendant's right to counsel. In Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, (1989), the Court held: "A robbery suspect has no Sixth Amendment right to use funds he has stolen to retain an attorney. The privilege to practice law is not a license to steal." Vagueness challenges under due process are uniformly turned aside. In Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana (1989), the Court observed that if RICO's predicate offenses were "not unconstitutionally vague, then RICO cannot be vague either." In short, since a violation of RICO depends on a violation of the predicate offense, fair notice is marked out by the predicate offense. Avoid such offenses and you avoid RICO. Abortion protesters are complaining that its use against them is unlawful. In Now v. Scheidler (1994), the Court held that the statute was broad enough to apply to unlawful protests. The American Civil Liberties Union was prescient.


Blakey, G. Robert, and Brian Gettings. "Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations (RICO): Basic ConceptsCriminal and Civil Remedies." Temple Law Quarterly 53 (1980): 1009. Overview of the law at its inception.

Griffin, Joe, and Don DeNevi. Mob Nemesis: How the F.B.I. Crippled Organized Crime. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2002. Personal story of F.B.I. efforts against Mafia families by a knowledgeable insider.

Jacobs, James B., et al. Busting the Mob : United States v. Cosa Nostra. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Best academic study of success of RICO in New York City.

Luccaro, Daniel et al. "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations." 38 American Criminal Law Review (2001): 1212. Overview of the law as it has developed in the modern period.

President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, Task Force: Organized Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967. Comprehensive analysis of organized crime at the beginning of the modern period.

President's Commission on Organized Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986. Comprehensive analysis of organized crime and RICO after the beginning of the modern period.

Raab, Selwyn. "A Battered and Ailing Mafia Is Losing Its Grip on America." New York Times. 22 Oct. 1990, p. A1. Popular presentation of the decline of the Mafia and RICO's use against the families of the Mafia in New York City.

G. Robert Blakey

See also Organized Crime Control Act .

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RICO (USA) Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act

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