In the public imagination, RICO charges are for the mafia. Indeed, prosecutors often use RICO laws today in attempts to break up organized crime rings.
However, these charges can also arise in cases that look very different from the typical gangster movie. They have shown up in many drug cases, white-collar crime cases, and in high-profile cases involving politicians.
What is the RICO Act?
The history of RICO charges stems from the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which Congress passed in 1970 as part of an effort to combat organized crime. Lawmakers felt the RICO Act was necessary to go after top figures in organized crime who could not be prosecuted under other statutes. Prior to its passage, the authorities often found they could prosecute lower-level members of organized crime groups who committed various violent and nonviolent crimes, but not those higher in the hierarchy of these groups who profited from the crimes.
The great innovation of the RICO Act was that it made it illegal to be employed or associated with a business engaged in an illegal scheme. This can include otherwise legitimate businesses that are carrying out criminal schemes. This allowed prosecutors to go after the proverbial kingpins of criminal operations, but it also allowed prosecutors to use the RICO Act in many other contexts.
Indiana’s RICO law
After the passage of the federal law, many states passed their own versions of the RICO Act.
Indiana’s RICO law allows prosecutors to pursue civil remedies as well as criminal charges, This means they can use the state RICO law to seize assets from people engaged in allegedly illegal enterprises.
Proponents say this gives law enforcement a valuable tool to break up organized crime. One of the requirements of RICO charges is that the organization is engaged in commercial activity, and prosecutors say that by seizing the profits of these criminal organizations, they cut off their most crucial means of support.
However, critics say that prosecutors have too often used this approach against low-level members of organizations, including small-time drug dealers who were loosely associated with larger drug rings. This, these critics say, does not serve the RICO law’s supposed purpose of reaching the people at the top of criminal organizations.
It also means that even people who are accused of relatively low-level crimes can use the help of professionals with experience defending against high-level charges.