Recently in the news, there were several stories of a large number of people in the Jacksonvile area and throughout Florida who were arrested on RICO charges relating to internet cafes and the Allied Veterans of the World. RICO is not a charge that is filed very often by state prosecutors, but as criminal defense lawyers working in the Jacksonville, Florida area, we have handled several RICO cases.
RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization. RICO laws in the various states and in the federal system were designed to deal with organizations that allegedly commit crimes on an ongoing basis and to also make it easier to catch people who have a more supervisory or leadership role in an organization that commits crimes as opposed to lower level people who might have a more hands-on role. Over the years, prosecutors have used RICO laws to go after fairly loosely tied groups of people that are not in a discrete organization but have some connection in relation to the commission of alleged crimes. In most states, including Florida, the penalties for a RICO violation are very severe.
In Florida, to prove that one or more people committed a RICO violation, the state must prove the defendant participated in an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering. That, in and of itself, does not tell us much, and there is a lot of case law in the various states that explain what an enterprise is, what a pattern is and what racketeering means. In relatively simple terms, the state does not need to prove much to establish a pattern. Basically at least two criminal acts that are similar in some way may be enough to establish a pattern. A pattern of racketeering occurs when a defendant commits two or more specific crimes referenced in the RICO Act. Normally, a large number of crimes will qualify for a predicate act under the RICO laws, even where the criminal conduct is not very serious. The RICO Act is one way to turn less serious criminal conduct on an individual basis into very serious criminal conduct when done multiple times with other people involved. As for the participation part, the state would have to prove that the defendant participated in the enterprise while knowing the criminal objectives of the enterprise and agreeing to further that purpose.
The RICO laws are fairly complicated and include several general terms that have been interpreted in many ways. At its essence, the RICO laws are a wide ranging tool that the state can attempt to use to convict a lot of people loosely related in any number of criminal activities and get them much more severe penalties than they might get if the criminal acts were charged individually.