The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute (18 U.S.C. Sections 161–168), part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, was designed to create an expansive legal definition of criminal conspiracy that would aid the authorities in their fight against organized crime.

Usually referred to as RICO, this statute has become the most powerful tool federal law enforcement has ever had in its fight against organized crime. The statute includes a vague definition of racketeering that incorporates a list of crimes traditionally excluded from federal jurisdiction.

The list includes such crimes as murder, gambling, arson, robbery, and extortion. With this new tool and expanded federal jurisdiction, federal law enforcement and prosecutors have used RICO to convict and incarcerate more than a thousand organized crime figures by the end of the 1990s.

Traditionally, law enforcement tried to use the standard conspiracy laws and statutes to convict organized crime members. Thus, prosecutors had to prove an agreement within the group (two or more) and one overt act regarding a specific crime.

Because of the often varied and isolated criminal activities of an organized crime group, this was difficult. Under RICO, instead of focusing on specific crimes and the related conspiracy, law enforcement can focus on patterns of racketeering by an organized crime group.

That is, with RICO it is now illegal to belong to a group or “enterprise” that displays a pattern of racketeering even if another member of the enterprise is committing the illegal activities. To meet the “pattern of racketeering” requirements under RICO, only two crimes within a ten-year period need to be committed, with at least one of the crimes since 1970.

RICO includes both a criminal and a civil penalty. The maximum criminal penalty includes a $25,000 fine and imprisonment for twenty years, with all properties and interest related to the racketeering violation forfeited to the government. Civil penalties include treble damages and the attorney’s fee awarded to the successful plaintiff.

In an expansion of RICO, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that there did not have to be an economic motive for the illegal activities to fall under RICO. Using the civil section of RICO in 1998, two abortion clinics sued and received treble damages from antiabortion leaders.

This noneconomic expansion of RICO was also the basis for the April 2001 U.S. district judge’s decision allowing the Los Angeles Police Department to be sued as a racketeering enterprise.

Common criticisms of the RICO statute include its overreaching scope. Individuals who may be involved in illegal activities, even when it is evident that they are not involved in organized crime, are still being prosecuted under RICO.

Another criticism is that RICO allows an individual’s assets to be frozen before trial, which often forces defendants to plead guilty in an effort to save their business and savings. RICO also brings with it a negative characterization of the defendant as an organized crime figure.

RICO has been and continues to be the most effective legal tool ever brought against organized crime. Through the expanded list of racketeering crimes and the enterprise conspiracy clause, federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are now succeeding where in the past they had failed in both convictions and sentencing of organized crime figures.