RICO Act – History and Current Practice

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Congress sought a way to curb organized crime in America, holding numerous hearings that discussed how mob bosses and Mafia-affiliated families manipulated the system to avoid punishment while leading vast syndicates. The legislation that grew out of these hearings, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a part of the larger Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, enabled criminal and civil charges to be brought against the leaders of these organizations by establishing the existence of a criminal enterprise and a pattern of illegal behavior. However, while these racketeering charges were largely successful at defanging the Mafia, the current use of RICO in civil suits has become somewhat controversial.

In trials featuring names like Paul Castellano, “Fat Tony” Salerno, and Carmine “The Snake” Persico, RICO succeeded in taking down many of the country’s most infamous mob bosses. While the act has been instrumental in the fight against organized crime, the wide range of racketeering activities, which includes everything from murder or theft to copyright infringement or securities fraud, along with the broad definition of “enterprise,” has created an environment in which civil actions using RICO have become increasingly popular, creating debate among legal professionals and business leaders. Civil actions that involve RICO award treble damages, creating incentives for plaintiffs to uncover possible racketeering violations during discovery; and the pretrial asset and property seizure injunctions, originally designed to target Mafia shell corporations, place what some consider an undue burden on defendants.