A RICO lawyer is a lawyer specialized in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The law was originally passed by Congress in 1970 as a way to prosecute the Mafia, its members and other organized criminals. While its original purpose was limited, Congress wrote the statute with very broad language using the vague term “association-in-fact enterprise” instead of the more targeted “organized crime family.” The law also makes it illegal to “participate in the affairs” of such an enterprise through a “pattern of racketeering activity.” The term “participate” was not defined by Congress, and a pattern was defined as at least two crimes in a ten year period, thus casting a very wide net. Federal judges have had to grapple with these ambiguous terms, and a good RICO lawyer can make compelling arguments that the statute either applies to his case (if prosecuting) or does not (if defending).
What kinds of crimes can be charged under RICO? Crimes generally associated with the “mob” such as extortion, bribery, loan sharking, or obstruction of justice as well as the state common law crimes of murder, assault and kidnapping. RICO also takes aim as many “white collar” crimes not usually associated with the organized crime, including mail and wire fraud. Recently, RICO suits were filed against Catholic dioceses alleged to have harbored abusive priests. In two of these cases, the Catholic dioceses were cleared of these charges, having found that their mishandling of abuse claims did not constitute racketeering. RICO lawyers have defended Phillip Morris and other big tobacco companies which were successfully prosecuted by the U.S. government for defrauding smokers by using the mails and wires to falsely advertise their cigarettes as “safe” or “low tar.” These recent RICO suits show that while the law may have first been enacted to target the Mafia, the civil provisions are almost never applied to such persons today. Civil RICO is typically used against legitimate businesses, political protest organizations, and even groups supporting terrorism. Therefore, RICO lawyers are involved in a wide array of civil and criminal cases prosecuting and defending legitimate businesses and reputed mobsters and often in newsworthy cases. RICO cases have now been filed against BP for damages caused by the Gulf oil spill.