What is a RICO charge?

What is a RICO?

A RICO charge refers to prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This federal law provides extended penalties for criminal acts as part of an ongoing criminal organization. RICO charges allow law enforcement to go after the leaders of criminal organizations by establishing a pattern of their involvement in criminal enterprises.

What is RICO?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime rings like the mafia. RICO provides prosecutors with new tools to take down entire criminal empires by targeting the leaders who order others to commit crimes on their behalf.

The law imposes stiff sentences for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. The RICO Act focuses on racketeering crimes like extortion, money laundering, loan sharking, illegal gambling, and murder. It allows leaders of these organizations to be tried for crimes they ordered others to do.

How Do RICO Charges Work?

How Do RICO Work?

Under RICO, it is a crime to:

  • Invest money gained from a pattern of racketeering activity into an enterprise
  • Acquire control of an enterprise through a practice of racketeering activity
  • Conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity
  • Conspire to do any of these things

Prosecutors must show a pattern of criminal activity connected to an ongoing enterprise. The enterprise can be a legitimate business or an association like a gang. The action design must include at least two criminal acts within ten years.

Once this pattern is shown, RICO allows prosecutors to charge organization heads for crimes they instructed others to commit. It also permits charges for other likely crimes in the criminal enterprise.

RICO cases require approval from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Federal investigators build extensive dossiers on criminal organizations to get permission for RICO indictments.

What Are the Penalties for RICO Violations?

The penalties for racketeering crimes charged under RICO are severe. They include:

  • Up to 20 years in prison per racketeering count
  • Forfeiture of property connected to the criminal activity
  • Fines up to $25,000 per count

In addition, any proceeds traced back to the racketeering activity can be seized. The RICO Act also allows victims of criminal activity to sue for triple damages in civil court.

RICO violations are prosecuted in federal court. Convictions often result in lengthy prison terms and heavy financial penalties. Defendants with the deepest pockets usually pay the steepest fines and settlements in civil RICO suits.

Famous RICO Cases

Some famous RICO cases targeted mafia leaders and outlaw motorcycle gangs. These include:

  • 1985 -Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and other leaders of the Genovese crime family were convicted of controlling Manhattan’s concrete unions through racketeering.
  • 1988 – The heads of the Outlaws, Pagans, and Bandidos motorcycle gangs were convicted of RICO charges for criminal activities like drug trafficking, extortion, and murder.
  • 1992 – Gambino crime boss John Gotti was convicted on RICO charges and sentenced to life without parole.
  • 1995 – Jeffrey Dilione, head of a music piracy ring, was the first person not tied to organized crime to be indicted under RICO. He received an eight-year prison sentence.

RICO charges have recently been used against street gangs and police corruption cases. The law remains an essential weapon for dismantling organized criminal activity at its highest levels.

RICO Charges in Pop Culture

RICO prosecutions are complex, so it’s no surprise they often appear on TV crime dramas. Some notable references include:

  • The Sopranos – Tony Soprano frequently worries about possible RICO indictments that could take down his mob family.
  • The Wire – Detective Lester Freamon follows the money to build a RICO case against drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s criminal organization.
  • Breaking Bad – Hank Schrader suggests a RICO prosecution could be used to take down Gus Fring’s massive meth empire.
  • Sons of Anarchy – When law enforcement starts building a RICO case against the motorcycle club, members debate whether to comply or resist.


Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about RICO charges:

What does RICO stand for?

RICO is an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970.

What’s the difference between RICO and conspiracy?

A RICO charge requires proof of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Conspiracy requires evidence of an agreement to commit specific crimes.

Can RICO be applied to street gangs?

Yes, RICO charges have been used against gangs like the Crips, Bloods, MS-13, and Latin Kings.

Do RICO laws violate double jeopardy?

No, RICO allows separate prosecutions for predicate crimes and racketeering. The offenses contain different elements, so double jeopardy doesn’t apply.

Can a RICO indictment be beaten?

RICO cases can be complicated to defend against. But charges have sometimes been dismissed for technical errors or insufficient evidence.


The RICO Act provides a powerful tool for dismantling complex criminal organizations. These racketeering laws allow prosecutors to impose harsh sentences on leaders who direct others to commit crimes. RICO continues to be deployed against mobsters, gangs, corrupt officials, and other criminal enterprises operating within legitimate businesses.

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