From the Mob to Terrorists: How RICO has Affected Prosecutions

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

The  Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, has gone far beyond the bounds of its initial intention. Enacted by congress in 1970, RICO was passed “with the declared purpose of seeking to eradicate organized crime in the United States” (Department of Justice n.d.). Under RICO, the United States Government was able to prosecute crimes committed by criminal organizations as a whole. This meant that when a case was brought against an individual, the organization that they were a part of, or in any way contributing to, would also be brought to justice. Not only can RICO be applied to a criminal act, and prosecuted at a federal level, but RICO also has civil implications. In a civil suit, RICO is a powerful weapon which allows individual citizens to bring others to court regarding criminal enterprises. However, many of the same processes still apply.

Despite having vague wording, and a broad interpretation, a RICO indictment must meet a set of criteria.The RICO act explicitly outlines 35 offenses which constitute racketeering. The most intense being “gambling, murder, kidnapping, arson, drug dealing, and bribery” (“Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Law” n.d.).  However, there are two offenses which are included under RICO which have the farthest reach, and allow for vast interpretation: mail and wire fraud. In order to execute a RICO indictment however, there must be proof, beyond a reasonable doubt that an “enterprise,” or criminal organization, exists. The economic reason that RICO is a federal offense, is there must be proof that the actions of the organization affected interstate commerce. Then there must be proof that the defendant was associated with the organization in question, and “engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity” (Department of Justice n.d.). And finally, that the indictment provides at least two instances of racketeering which the defendant participated in, or assisted the organization with. Both instances included in the indictment must have occurred within a ten year period. These prior offenses, known as “predicate acts” must prove the potential for future criminal activity, and/or involvement in the enterprise (Department of Justice n.d.).

The interpretation of the ‘enterprise’ is also expansive, and allows for a broad understanding by the courts, as was the initial intention of congress. Under the RICO act, “enterprise is defined as including any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity” (Department of Justice n.d.). In layman’s terms, any individual, or group of individuals, de jure or de facto, which participate in acts of racketeering in order to further the goals of their organization, constitute an enterprise.

Given the inherent liberal interpretation of RICO, the US government has been able to turn the focus from organized crime such as the old Irish Mob, and begin to focus on more modern forms of organized crime. This doesn’t just mean gangs and drug cartels, however. RICO has expanded its already broad interpretation to also encompass terrorist organizations with operations in the United States. RICO has become an important part of the war on terror, despite appearing minimally in the data set thus far. Because of RICOs financial implications, prosecutors are able to apply RICO to people who attempt to provide material support to terrorist organizations. If a group is designated a terrorist group, providing material support has become a prosecutable offense. Organizations can also be prosecuted for act of terrorism “for events that occurred prior to official designations of the terrorist organizations involved,” giving RICO a more powerful role in law enforcement (Perquel 2015).

-Emily Lightman


Department of Justice. N.d. “RICO CHARGES.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed December 2, 2018.

Perquel, Anne-Laure. 2015. “The Use of RICO in the War against Terror.” April 2015, 1-25.

“Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Law.” n.d. Justicia Law. Accessed December 2, 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *