Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations (RICO) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO)  is a federal statute designed to make it easier to prosecute organized crime cases.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act is a federal law enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime in the United States. The law provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. RICO has been an essential tool for law enforcement in dismantling and prosecuting various criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, street gangs, and white-collar crime syndicates.

RICO has an extensive and complex history that spans over five decades. The law was initially intended to target the Mafia, but its reach extends beyond traditional organized crime groups. The statute defines a “pattern of racketeering activity” as at least two acts of racketeering activity within ten years. Racketeering activity includes a broad range of criminal conduct, such as bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering, and murder.

One of the most significant impacts of RICO is its broad application in civil suits. RICO allows private individuals, businesses, and organizations to sue criminal enterprises for damages caused by the racketeering activities of the organization. The law has been instrumental in helping victims of organized crime seek compensation for their losses, including businesses and investors defrauded by white-collar criminals.

RICO has also had a profound effect on the criminal justice system. The law provides for severe criminal penalties, including up to twenty years in prison, for individuals found guilty of violating its provisions. It also allows for the forfeiture of assets gained through racketeering activities, such as drug profits or ill-gotten gains from fraud schemes. These penalties have been a significant deterrent to organized crime, as they make it more difficult for criminal organizations to operate.

Despite its successes, RICO has been a controversial law since its enactment. Some critics argue that it is overly broad and can be used to prosecute legitimate businesses that may have tangential connections to criminal enterprises. Others argue that RICO has been used to target low-level participants in criminal organizations rather than their leaders, resulting in a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

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Last Modified: 04/18/2023


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