It comes up constantly in the news and is a powerful prosecution weapon for the federal government. The 50 year-old Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act has been widely and successfully used to prosecute thousands of individuals and organizations for white collar federal crimes.

Under RICO, it is illegal to acquire, operate or receive income from an enterprise by engaging in a pattern of racketeering. This law targets ongoing organized criminal activities through investigation and prosecution of a pattern of crimes conducted through

an enterprise. An enterprise is an individual, partnership, corporation, association, any other legal entity, and any group of individuals.

Simply belonging to a racketeering organization is illegal if others are engaged in illegal activity. RICO prohibits a person engaging in racketeering or collecting money from an unlawful debt to engage in interstate commerce. Conspiring to engage in these activities is also illegal.

A RICO conviction requires proof of a pattern of illegal offenses. This is defined as the commission of at least two identified crimes within 10 years.

RICO lists many federal crimes as racketeering including bribery, counterfeiting, union fund embezzlement, loan sharking, mail or wire fraud, obstruction of justice, contraband cigarette trafficking, prostitution, bankruptcy fraud, drug offenses and obscenity. Its broad definition of racketeering also includes many crimes that may not violate federal law such as any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, extortion, and trafficking in narcotic or dangerous drugs.

RICO has been used to prosecute offenses that do not involve organized crime. Other defendants have included ant obscenity protesters, owners of adult and video bookstores, financial institutions, politicians, doctors, and law enforcement.

RICO penalties exceed those imposed for the underlying criminal acts. Maximum RICO penalties include 20 years imprisonment and a $25,000 fine. These are imposed in addition to the penalties resulting from at least two substantive crimes committed in a 10-year period. Civil forfeiture of property may occur through an expedited civil proceeding where proof of the underlying crime is not required.

Legal assistance should be sought as soon as possible in a federal criminal investigation. An attorney can help protect rights and defend against these serious charges.