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The Federal RICO Act: A Primer

by | Dec 22, 2022 | Criminal Law

Federal law enforcement has several tools at its disposal for combating organized crime. Perhaps the most powerful tool it has is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Here’s what you need to know about the Federal RICO Act if you find yourself charged with violating it in Florida.


Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the RICO Act provides for extended criminal penalties for crimes carried out as part of a larger criminal organization. In addition, RICO established a civil cause of action against those engaged in organized crime as well.


Although its purpose was initially limited to prosecuting the Mafia, it has found wider use in the half century since its passage. In a nutshell, one who has committed at least two acts of racketeering activity in the past ten years may be charged under the federal RICO statute. The crimes eligible for prosecution under the RICO Act include:

  • Acts of terrorism,
  • arson,
  • bribery,
  • bankruptcy fraud,
  • counterfeiting,
  • criminal copyright infringement,
  • dealing in obscene matter,
  • dealing or trafficking illegal drugs,
  • embezzlement,
  • extortion,
  • fraud,
  • gambling,
  • human smuggling,
  • kidnapping,
  • murder,
  • murder for hire,
  • money laundering,
  • obstruction of justice,
  • robbery, and
  • slavery.

The federal RICO statute made prosecuting organized crime significantly easier, as RICO requires proof of a pattern of behavior by the defendant.


Should the U.S. attorney who brings the RICO charge deem it proper, he or she may seek a pre-trial restraining order or an injunction aimed at seizing the defendant’s assets. This is to preserve property from being transferred to another individual.


Frequently just the threat of a RICO prosecution can prompt a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge, in part because asset seizure under the RICO statute may make it difficult for the defendant to pay for a legal defense.


If a defendant is charged under the RICO Act, they may expect to be charged with several other crimes as well. But a conviction under the Rico Act is no small thing. A sentence for violating the federal RICO Act can be up to 20 years in prison without parole and a fine of up to $25,000.


In addition to criminal penalties, the federal RICO Act provides for civil remedies as well. A private individual who can show damages to his or her business or property and who can prove the existence of a criminal enterprise may recover up to three times his monetary damages if successful in court. The defendant must prove one of four relationships between the defendant and the enterprise, namely


  • That the defendant invested proceeds of the pattern of racketeering activity into the enterprise, or
  • the defendant acquired or maintained an interest in, or control of, the enterprise through the pattern of racketeering activity, or
  • the defendant conducted or participated in the affairs of the enterprise through the pattern of racketeering activity, or
  • the defendant conspired to do one of the above.


Subsequent to the passage of the RICO Act, 33 states enacted their own versions of anti-racketeering laws, including Florida. The US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico also have their own versions of the RICO Act as well.


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