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Racketeering and the RICO Act – A Primer

Many of us have seen on television courtroom dramas and in the news references to the crime of racketeering and the RICO Act that law enforcement utilizes to prosecute such acts. However, few people outside the legal community have a grasp on what precisely constitutes racketeering. Here’s what you need to know about racketeering in Florida.


Racketeering is not one individual or stand-alone crime. Rather, racketeering constitutes several crimes over a period of time. Federal laws define racketeering as a series of crimes that

  • Affect commerce,
  • are organized, and
  • demonstrate a pattern of activity.

Often racketeering crimes include crimes not only committed using physical violence, but also crimes of extortion or other forms of coercion.

Predicate Acts

In addition to crimes involving force or extortion, federal law identifies “predicate acts,” which are crimes that are committed in order to prepare for some other crime of express or implied violence.


The crime of racketeering enters English law in the early 19th century and referred to pickpockets who utilized distractions in order to distract their targets for theft.

More recently, the term racketeering appears in relation to the Prohibition Era in the United States and the organized criminal operations (typically the Mafia) that sprung up across the country to take advantage of the black market for consumer alcohol.

Law enforcement spent decades attempting to bring organized crime to justice even after the end of Prohibition, largely by convicting lower-level members of organized crime rackets but rarely were able to put enough of a case together for the criminal masterminds at the higher levels of those organized crime rackets.


That all changed in 1970 with the passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or “RICO” in short. Covering almost three dozen separate offenses, including

  • Collection of unlawful debt,
  • counterfeiting,
  • copyright infringement,
  • drug trafficking,
  • human trafficking,
  • illegal gambling,
  • kidnapping,
  • money laundering,
  • murder for hire,
  • obstruction of justice,
  • prostitution,
  • terrorism, and
  • witness tampering.

Essentially, RICO violations fall into four broad categories:

  • Investing or spending money earned from a criminal enterprise,
  • acquiring or controlling an enterprise via racketeering,
  • participating directly or indirectly in racketeering or unlawful debt collection, or
  • directly or indirectly conspiring to commit certain crimes as part of a larger organized crime enterprise.

Essentially, to obtain a conviction under RICO, federal prosecutors must prove five elements

  • Existence of a criminal enterprise,
  • the enterprise affected interstate commerce,
  • the accused was associated with or employed by the criminal enterprise,
  • the accused engaged in a pattern of racketeering, and
  • the accused has been a part of at least two racketeering acts in the previous decade.


Under the RICO Act, federal prosecutors may seek criminal sanctions against those accused of being involved in organized crime. Criminal penalties for a conviction under the RICO Act include a prison sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.

Private entities may also seek relief in the civil courts, as RICO allows for plaintiffs who prevail on their civil suit to be awarded treble damages, which is three times the amount of damages claimed against the defendant.


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