Anyone with an interest in crime drama may have heard officials discussing the RICO statute. It is often mentioned in procedural dramas in which an organized crime syndicate is being investigated. The reality is that there is a RICO statute in America, the Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations Act, federal law that provides for special penalties against a criminal organization, such as the Mafia, or a drug cartel.
The RICO statute originated as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, originally intended to fight the Mafia. Under the RICO statute, any person who is believed engaged in any number of a host of federal crimes is subject to enhanced criminal penalties, including the forfeiture of property suspected of being acquired from criminal enterprise. In practice, the application of a RICO indictment often leads a suspect to plead guilty to lesser charges, in order to avoid the seizure of assets.
Under RICO statues, specific crimes such as embezzlement of union funds, drug trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and securities fraud (among others) are identified as a part of racketeering activity. In 1979, for example, the Oakland, California, chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was indicted on RICO charges. Both the Gambino and Lucchese crime families were also prosecuted under various RICO statutes. In many jurisdictions, traditional RICO statutes are supplemented with the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Stature, the “Kingpin Statute” designed to prosecute drug trafficking.