Federal "RICO" and "Racketeering" Laws (18 U.S.C. § 1961-1968)

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It is a common misconception that federal RICO laws target only Mafia-related activities. The truth is no organization is immune from prosecution, and penalties may include decades in prison and high fines.

On this page, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys provide a summary of federal RICO law. Continue scrolling down to learn the definition, possible defenses, and potential punishments for racketeering.


RICO is a federal law that's short for "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act." RICO's purpose is to punish members of organizations that racketeer, which means to engage in a pattern of serious illegal conduct. Specifically, under RICO it is illegal either to:

  1. invest proceeds obtained from racketeering, or
  2. acquire an interest in a racketeering enterprise, or
  3. lead or participate in an enterprise carrying out racketeering

RICO targets both illegal groups such as gangs or the mob as well as legal groups such as homeowners associations that become corrupt. Elko NV criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example of a typical RICO defendant:

Example: Zack is the leader of a theft-ring in Henderson, whose members routinely rob and burglarize throughout the city. If caught, Zack could be booked at the Henderson Detention Center on federal RICO charges because he's a leader of an enterprise that participates in a pattern of criminal activity. It doesn't matter that Zack never physically stole anything himself . . . that he orders other to steal on his behalf makes him criminally liable.

A person may be convicted under RICO in Nevada federal court if he/she is part of a criminal enterprise that committed at least two (2) of thirty-five (35) certain crimes within a ten-year period. Some of these thirty-five crimes include the following federal and state offenses:

Note that RICO applies only if the two (or more) crimes that the defendant allegedly committed are related and not isolated events. Courts use a "continuity-plus-relationship" test to determine whether the crimes have similar goals, results, players, victims, methods, or are otherwise interrelated. Reno NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse illustrates this concept for distinguishing racketeering:

Example: Sam is the head of a street gang in Carson City. In 2005, Sam orders a gang member to traffic a barrel of marijuana so all the gang members can divide the profits. In 2010, Sam goes into a casino alone and tampers with a slot machine so it pays out more money, which he keeps for himself. If Sam is caught, the U.S. Marshals Service could book Sam at the Washoe County Detention Center for conspiring to commit the Nevada crime trafficking of marijuana and for the Nevada crime of cheating at gambling. However, he should not also be prosecuted under RICO because the trafficking and cheating incidents weren't related or part of an overall pattern of crime.

Note that if Sam did engage in a pattern of drug trafficking in Nevada, the
U.S. Attorney's Office would probably forgo bringing RICO charges and instead prosecute Sam under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Statute (called "CCE" or the "Kingpin Statute"). In recent years prosecutors have used CCE instead of RICO to target large-scale drug rings.

Nevada racketeering law

Racketeering is a state crime in Nevada as well as a federal crime. Nevada's racketeering law is very similar to federal law. The main difference is that Nevada law requires that the defendant's two (or more) alleged instances of criminal activity must occur within five years of each other as opposed to ten years under federal law. Learn more about the Nevada crime of racketeering.


Racketeering is a very complicated federal offense, and the most effective methods to fight allegations of it depend on the circumstances of each individual matter. The most usual defenses include:

  • The unlawful activities are not interrelated. A defendant may be convicted under RICO only if the racketeering offenses he/she allegedly carried out were related. If the government falls short of proving that any illegal activities were part of a cohesive pattern of criminal activity, then the RICO charges should not stand.
  • The police behaved unlawfully. Prosecutors rely on thorough police searches to find evidence to prove that the defendant committed racketeering. But occasionally cops cut corners and seize evidence illegally. In such cases, the defense lawyer could file a Nevada motion to suppress evidence, which requests that the court disregard the unlawfully obtained evidence. If the court agrees with the motion, the prosecution could be left with inadequate evidence to convince the court that the defendant is guilty.
  • There is not enough proof. The prosecution has the burden to prove that a defendant accused of violating RICO is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defense attorney can convince the court that the government lacks sufficient evidence to meet this burden, then the defendant should not be held criminally liable.
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Each count of racketeering under federal RICO law in Nevada carries a sentence of a fine and/or up to twenty years in Federal Prison. However, the judge can raise the punishment to a life sentence if the conviction is based on a racketeering activity that carries life imprisonment, such as murder.

Furthermore, the defendant faces asset forfeiture in Nevada of any "ill-gotten gains" from his/her alleged racketeering activity. The prosecution may seek a pre-trial restraining order to temporarily freeze the defendant's assets pending the case's outcome.

Finally, a defendant in a RICO case may be sued civilly by any victims harmed by the defendant's alleged racketeering activities. The judge in civil suits may award "treble" damages, which is three times the victim's losses.

Arrested? Call . . .

If you have been accused of violating federal "RICO" law in Nevada, phone Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673). We may be able to have the charges reduced or thrown out altogether. we are also ready to fight for you at trial in pursuit of a not guilty verdict.


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