Federal RICO (racketeering) cases in Nevada are brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. These prosecutions target enterprises that engage in a pattern of criminal activity within a 10-year time frame. The offenses usually involve large scale theft, fraud, drug trafficking, or violence. Defendants typically face fines and/or up to 20 years in prison. And they are required to forfeit any cash and property related to the racketeering activities.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is RICO?
- 2. When do feds bring racketeering charges?
- 3. What are the penalties for racketeering?
- 4. How do I fight RICO charges?
- 5. How does federal law differ from state law?
RICO is short for the federal law, “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.” The purpose of the RICO statute is to punish members of enterprises that racketeer, which means to engage in a pattern of serious illegal conduct. Specifically, RICO prohibits:
- investing proceeds obtained from racketeering activities, or
- acquiring an interest in a racketeering enterprise, or
- leading or participating in an enterprise carrying out racketeering
Through RICO, the Attorney General targets not only criminal organizations such as gangs or the mob. The A.G. also targets legal entities and legitimate businesses – such as corporations or homeowners associations – that become corrupt. And anyone engaged in racketeering is criminally liable, whether the person is the leader of the enterprise or a low-level member.1
Example: Zack is the leader of a theft-ring in Henderson. This group of individuals routinely rob and burglarize throughout Nevada and California. If caught, Zack could be arrested on federal racketeering charges because he is involved with an enterprise that participates in a pattern of criminal activity. And it does not matter that Zack never physically stole anything himself. That he orders others to steal on his behalf makes him criminally liable.
It is a common misconception that federal RICO laws target only Mafia-related syndicates. The truth is no organization is immune from prosecution for organized crime. As discussed below, RICO crimes run the gamut from drug and theft offenses to white-collar crimes, violent felonies, and collecting unlawful debt.
People face RICO prosecutions for allegedly being part of a criminal enterprise that committed at least two serious crimes within a 10-year period. Some of these serious “predicate offenses” include the following federal and state crimes:
- Embezzlement of union funds
- Securities fraud
- Bankruptcy fraud
- Money laundering
- Drug trafficking
- Criminal copyright infringement
- Bringing illegal aliens into the country for profit
- Bribery (see sports bribery and witness bribery)
- Obstruction of justice
- Gambling crimes
- Fraud crimes (see mail fraud, bank fraud, and wire fraud)
- Gambling crimes (see gaming fraud (NRS 265.070), and cheating at gambling (NRs 465.083))
- Murder (NRS 200.030)
- Kidnapping (NRS 200.310)
- Arson (NRS 205.010)
- Robbery (NRS 200.380)
- Extortion (NRS 205.320)
- Drug dealing (see drug selling (NRS 453.321), and drug trafficking (NRS 453.3385))2
Note that RICO applies only if the defendant’s alleged predicate acts were interrelated. Courts use a continuity-plus-relationship test to determine whether the crimes have similar goals, results, players, victims, or methods.3
Example: Sam is the head of a street gang in Carson City. In 2015, Sam orders a gang member to traffic a barrel of marijuana from California so all the gang members can divide the profits. In 2020, 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, he could face federal charges for drug trafficking as well as state charges for cheating at gambling. However, federal prosecutors would not charge him under RICO because the trafficking and cheating incidents were not related or part of an overall pattern of crime.
Note that if Sam in the above example did engage in a pattern of drug trafficking, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would probably forgo bringing racketeering 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.4
A RICO conviction carries a fine and/or up to 20 years in Federal Prison. However, criminal penalties can increase to a life sentence if the conviction is based on a racketeering activity that carries life imprisonment, such as murder.
Defendants are also subject to asset forfeiture of any ill-gotten gains from their alleged racketeering activity. Federal prosecutors in RICO actions usually seek a pre-trial restraining order to temporarily freeze defendants’ assets pending the case’s outcome.5
Note that racketeering makes suspects vulnerable to civil actions as well. Defendants face lawsuits for civil remedies by any victims harmed by the racketeering. The judges in these civil RICO claims may award treble damages, which is three times the victims’ losses.6
Common defenses to federal racketeering charges include the following:
- The unlawful activities were not interrelated. A defendant may be convicted under RICO only if the racketeering offenses he/she allegedly carried out were connected. If the government falls short of proving that any illegal activities were part of a cohesive pattern of criminal activity, then the RICO case should not stand.
- The defendant did not act willfully. A key element of most RICO offenses is that the defendant deliberately broke the law. If the defense attorney can show that the defendant lacked criminal intent, then the prosecutor’s criminal case may fall apart.
- The police committed misconduct. Prosecutors rely on thorough police searches to find evidence to prove that the defendant committed racketeering. But occasionally law enforcement officers cut corners and seize evidence without a warrant (or without a legal reason to forgo getting a warrant). In such cases, the defense lawyer could file a 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 insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Nevada has its own racketeering law (NRS 207.400). Nevada law requires that the defendant’s two (or more) predicate crimes occur within five years of each other. Under federal law, the time limit is 10 years.
- up to $25,000, or
- up to three times of what the defendant gained or caused victims to lose.
Defendants also have to forfeit any proceeds from their racketeering.
Note that Nevada state district courts have jurisdiction over NRS 207.400 cases. Meanwhile, Nevada federal court handles RICO charges that arise in Nevada.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1961.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1962
- H. J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Tel. Co., 492 U.S. 229, 109 S. Ct. 2893 (the Supreme Court, 1989).
- 21 U.S.C. § 848.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1963.
- 18 United States Code § 1964.