RICO and Racketeering


Federal RICO Crime

“RICO” is an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The RICO act was enacted in 1970 and was originally aimed at prosecuting the Mafia and other organized criminal groups. However, since the 1970s, the use of RICO has expended to apply more generally to other gangs, businesses, individuals, and even churches. Federal RICO and racketeering charges have serious consequences, and can be charged for activities you may have never thought would constitute racketeering.


Racketeering comes from the term “racket,” meaning an organized illegal activity. Racketeering generally involves some type of illegal activity that is conducted as part of a group or enterprise. Racketeering is traditionally associated with organized crime, although it can apply to a variety of illegal activities. Unlawful activities under RICO may involve:

  • Protection Rackets;
  • Bribery;
  • Embezzlement;
  • Extortion;
  • Loan Sharking;
  • Counterfeiting;
  • Money Laundering
  • Drug Trafficking; and
  • Gambling, among other unlawful contuct.

A single criminal offense may not be considered racketeering. Racketeering requires a pattern of such criminal activity that is committed or controlled by an enterprise.

Racketeering can be a federal crime, as well as a state crime. Many states, including Virginia, have laws similar to RICO, often called little RICO statutes. See § 18.2-512, “Virginia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.”

Criminal Enterprise

A criminal enterprise is defined in the RICO statute as “any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity.”

The RICO definition of enterprise is extremely broad, and would appear to cover just about anyone who is involved in these illegal activities. The broad definition allows federal prosecutors to bring racketeering charges against the Mafia, as well as outlaw motorcycle gangs, street gangs, companies, and individuals.

In 1979, a chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang were prosecuted under RICO charges. Since that time, racketeering charges were been alleged against the Catholic dioceses over mishandling sex abuse claims; the Key West Police Department for running a protection racket; and even a Pennsylvania judge who were charged with taking kickbacks for sending juvenilles to detention facilities.

Pattern of Racketeering

A pattern of racketeering is also broadly defined as requiring at least two acts of racketeering activity committed within ten years of each other. The acts of racketeering should be releated and amount to a threat of continued criminal activity. With the broad application of racketeering charges, many activities that fall under the category of “white collar crime” are now being targeted with RICO charges.

RICO Investigations

RICO investigations can be initiated by any number of sources, depending on the suspected act of racketeering. For financial activities like money laundering, banks or financial institutions could notice suspicious activity, and report the financial crimes to authorities. A private company may conduct their own internal investigation for activities such as embezzlement or counterfeiting, then contact law enforement. Local or federal enforcement agencies may be investigating a single crime, then later learn that it may be part of a pattern of activity, to expand their investigation.

There are many state and federal agencies that may be involved in a RICO case. This includes the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and local law enforcement. In some cases, international law enforcement cooperation including INTERPOL may be involved.

When you become aware of a racketeering charge or a RICO investigation, you may be wary of cooperating with government investigators. After all, saying the wrong thing may lead to prosecutors charging you with racketeering crimes. If you contact your federal criminal defense lawyer, they can help you make these tough decisions so that you aren't exposed to additional criminal liability.

Racketeering Penalties

Under the RICO statute, the maximum penalty for racketeering includes a fine, and up to 20 years in federal prison. An individual may also have to turn over illegal profits or other property gained from racketeering. In addition, the criminal penalties for the alleged criminal activities may also apply. For example, if the pattern of criminal activity involved murder for hire under 18 U.S. Code § 1968, then the penalties could include life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Conspiracy to violate the RICO statute under 18 U.S. Code § 1962(d) is also a violation. That means that even if an individual or group never went through with the criminal activities, they may still be charged with a RICO violation. A conspiracy is an agreement by two or more people to commit an unlawful act. A RICO conspiracy only requires the conspirator to intend to further an endevour, which if it were completed, would satisfy the elements of a RICO claim. The same penalties as above may apply for a conviction of conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The RICO Act also provides for civil penalties for racketeering violations. A victim of a Ponzi scheme, embezzlement or other racketeering activity can sue an individual or business for damages caused by the criminal act. Money damages can be awarded up to three times the actual cost of damages, which is intended to deter similar activity in the future.

Federal Racketeering Defense

There may be a number of possible defenses to charges of racketeering. This includes arguing that there was no continuity between the criminal activities to esablish a pattern. With the wide variety of criminal activities that can be associated with racketeering, the available defenses will depend on the individual case. Your federal racketeering defense lawyer will be able to explain the complexities of your case, and the best defense strategy.

Federal prosecutors take racketeering cases very seriously, which can result in lengthy prison sentences, and heavy fines. If you or someone you know is being investigated for a possible RICO charge, it is important to have someone by your side to fight for your rights. Criminal defense lawyers who have successfully defended their clients facing federal RICO charges can help you through the process, investigate all available legal defenses, and negotiate with investigators and prosecutors to get your charges reduced or dismissed, and defend you in court.

What Happens Now?

If you are incarcerated, we will contact you in the jail where you are held, and we will remain in contact throughout the pendency of your case. If you are able to come in to the office, we will ask you to come meet in person as soon as possible. Our approach to defense is zealous, organized, and fast-paced, and we look forward to helping you.


Carmichael Ellis & Brock, PLLC is committed to representing you in criminal, military, security clearance, medical malpractice, personal injury, and product liability cases.