What Offenses Are Covered Under the RICO Act?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act allows extensive criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits against individuals participating in a wider “criminal enterprise.” But RICO enforcement stretches far beyond just taking down old-school mafia mobs. 

Under the flexible statute, plaintiffs can pursue RICO charges for various types of fraud, financial schemes, government corruption, and other prolific illegal operations. 

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)

Congress passed RICO in 1970 to empower criminal law enforcement agencies against organized crime operations like the mafia. The idea was to charge the entire criminal organization instead of just individuals.

But over the years, federal prosecutors have used RICO in some surprising ways. Major corporate fraud scandals have faced RICO charges. So have violent street gangs. The law has grown into a powerful tool for rooting out ongoing patterns of illegal activity.

This is possible because, at its core, RICO focuses on “racketeering activity.” This covers dozens of state and federal crimes ranging from bribery to money laundering to fraud. If an organization commits a pattern of these racketeering activities, RICO steps in.

Defining a Pattern of Racketeering

The key is the “pattern” of activity. Under RICO statutes, a pattern requires at least two racketeering acts within ten years. However, federal prosecutors typically claim far more than two acts when building a RICO case.

The racketeering acts must also demonstrate similar goals, methods, or participants over time. This ongoing pattern proves the organization poses a continued criminal threat.

For example, consider a street gang trafficking illegal drugs. The gang routinely uses violence, bribes officials, and launders money. By showing coordination between these racketeering activities over several years, federal prosecutors can build strong cases to take down the entire enterprise.

Defining Criminal Organizations

RICO’s next core concept refers to the criminal “enterprise.” The RICO Act applies to all types and sizes of organizations, from small street gangs to Fortune 500 companies.

Common RICO targets include:

  • Organized crime families
  • Motorcycle gangs
  • Street gangs
  • Drug cartels
  • Corporations
  • Political organizations
  • Nonprofits
  • Unions

Prosecutors must prove an organization’s members joined together in a structured way to conduct illegal activities. This structure could be hierarchical, like the mafia, or decentralized, like affiliates of international hackers.

Because RICO holds the entire enterprise accountable, RICO violations deliver especially severe consequences.

Penalties Under RICO

The RICO Act increases the maximum prison sentences for individuals convicted of predicate crimes or complex criminal activities to 20 years per racketeering count. These predicate crimes can include drug trafficking, tax evasion, murder, corruption, human trafficking, illegal wildlife trafficking, and forgery. RICO also calls for substantial fines against non-juristic entities, such as businesses and organizations.

Going further, RICO features aggressive asset forfeiture rules. This allows the government to seize property connected to racketeering activity across the enterprise. The potential financial hits—including seizing companies themselves—often exceed any criminal penalties.

RICO also changes typical trial rules to benefit prosecutors. For example, hearsay evidence can become admissible when it serves to show the criminal enterprise’s existence. Prosecutors can also introduce evidence of criminal acts that perpetrators were previously acquitted of, such as evidence from prior murder and drug cases. The broader focus stays on the pattern of racketeering activity.

Examples of RICO Offenses and Cases

Mafia Families

RICO originally targeted organized crime syndicates like New York’s infamous Five Families. High-profile convictions of mob bosses helped establish RICO as federal prosecutors’ biggest weapon against the mafia to this day.

Street Gangs

Over the past fifty years, state and federal authorities have increasingly used RICO to prosecute violent national street gangs. Mass RICO indictments take aim at drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping, and other related activities.

Corporate Fraud Scandals

RICO entered a new era in the early 2000s by charging Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate giants for business accounting fraud schemes. The act provided the sweeping tools the federal prosecution needed to punish the coordinated, white-collar misconduct following scenes of public outrage.

In these sensational cases, RICO brought decisive enforcement action against patterns of illegal enterprise activity. The act dismantles organizations from top leadership to foot soldiers in one coordinated strike.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most common crimes charged under the RICO Act?

The most common crimes charged under the RICO Act include extortion, bribery, money laundering, murder, kidnapping, arson, drug trafficking, gambling, counterfeiting, theft, and fraud. Racketeering activities under RICO can include dozens of federal and state crimes.

How many predicate acts are required for a RICO charge?

A RICO charge requires at least two predicate acts of racketeering activity within ten years, though federal prosecutors typically claim far more acts when building a RICO case to demonstrate an extensive pattern of criminal coordination.

What organizations have faced RICO charges?

All types and sizes of organizations have faced RICO charges, including mafia crime families, street gangs, drug cartels, corporations, political groups, nonprofits, unions, and more. Any enterprise with members coordinating in a structured way to commit crimes can be charged.

Bottom Line – RICO Covers Lots of Ground

Given RICO’s background, it pays to remember a few key takeaways:

  • The act requires a pattern of racketeering activity—not just sporadic crimes
  • Racketeering includes dozens of qualifying state and federal offenses
  • RICO applies to all types and sizes of organizations
  • Convictions result in severe prison sentences and financial penalties
  • Prosecutors operate under special trial rules favoring broad evidence

So, if you find yourself facing an indictment citing “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations,” it’s critical to have experienced legal representation. RICO marks complex, high-stakes litigation with amplified liability. 

The criminal justice attorneys at Whalen Law Office in Frisco, TX, have successfully defended federal RICO charges in Texas for decades. They know every angle prosecutors take—and the right countermoves. Contact Whalen Law Office for a case assessment today.

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