The meaning of RICO law, or the “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act,” is that it is a law that allows authorities to punish offenders engaging in criminal activities, particularly racketeering. For example, RICO law punishes crime bosses who order their subordinates to carry out criminal activities for them. Else, these bosses could claim innocence because they technically were not the ones to carry out the crimes. To explore this concept, consider the following RICO law definition.

Definition of RICO Law


  1. The law that allows the authorities to punish those who are engaging in criminal activities such as racketeering.


October 15, 1970

What is RICO Law?

RICO Law, or the “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act,” is a law that allows the government to punish individuals associated with criminal activity, specifically the leaders of crime organizations. Before RICO law existed, crime bosses would order their minions to carry out crimes for them, and claim innocence if the police found out. Their argument was that, technically, no one could prosecute them for crimes like murder because they weren’t the ones doing the killing. The RICO Law made it possible for the police to arrest even the leaders of crime organizations.

Initially, the government passed RICO Law as a way to control the Mafia. However, in recent years, authorities have applied RICO law to more cases, allowing it to have more of a widespread effect.

What is Racketeering Activity?

Racketeering activity, as defined by law, is any crime involving gambling, arson, murder, robbery, kidnapping, bribery, theft, fraud, or activities involving obscene matter or controlled substances. Generally these crimes are part of a pattern of criminal activity engaged in by a particular party. Under the law, there are several types of activities that qualify as racketeering activity. Some examples of racketeering activity include:

Of course, racketeering activity is not limited to these examples provided above. Racketeering can also include embezzlement, murder-for-hire, and obstruction of justice, among other things.

Criminal RICO vs. Civil RICO

When it comes to prosecuting RICO crimes, there are actually RICO Law examples of criminal cases, and RICO Law examples of civil cases, too. Just like any other case, there are different requirements when it comes to prosecuting criminal RICO vs. civil RICO.

Criminal RICO Cases

For the authorities to charge a person with a RICO violation, he must have taken part in racketeering activity related to some sort of business. This can include anything from murder or arson, to kidnapping and drug dealing. Mail and wire fraud are also crimes that fall under the criminal RICO statutes.

Crimes of this nature are “predicate” offenses, and for the authorities to charge someone under criminal RICO law, an individual must have committed two predicate crimes with the same business within a span of 10 years.

The business referred to here is a crucial element of RICO crimes. The business can be anything from a Mafia crime family to a drug cartel, but it can also be a corporation or political party. Someone charged with a criminal RICO violation faces imprisonment of 20 years and significant financial penalties.

Civil RICO Cases

If someone brings a civil RICO case and wins, he can win treble damages. This means that he can win three times the amount of damages he initially claimed. In order for him to be successful in his claim, though, he must be able to prove three elements:

  1. Criminal Activity – He must show the defendant committed a RICO crime. If he alleges fraud, the court will ensure a thorough investigation of the matter before making a decision.
  2. Pattern of Criminal Activity – He must be able to show that the defendant committed a pattern of at least two crimes. Patterns can include everything from the same victim to the same methods used to commit the crimes, else he can show the crimes happened within the same year.
  3. Statute of Limitations – The statute of limitations on civil RICO cases is four years, which starts to run the moment the victim discovers the damages. If he does not file a case before those four years are up, the law precludes him from pursuing damages.

Anti-SLAPP Laws

SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” In other words, a SLAPP lawsuit is one meant to intimidate or silence an individual by burying him in the cost of defending himself in an effort to silence his opposition.

Typically, the lawyer and/or his client don’t expect to win the lawsuit itself. They only want to stop the plaintiff from pursuing his claim any further by exhausting or intimidating him. These lawsuits are, for the most part, illegal, as they violate an individual’s right to free speech.

On that note, anti-SLAPP laws protect people from individuals or corporations who use the courts against other people. This may be to retaliate against a victim or whistleblower, or to silence someone who would have otherwise brought a case against them.

An individual can file a RICO claim against a lawyer and/or his client if the individual can show the lawyer and/or his client has a pattern of violating anti-SLAPP laws. One way in which a lawyer can violate anti-SLAPP laws is to create a false legal claim as retaliation and potential punishment for the individual having the gall to bring them to court in the first place.

Famous RICO Cases

Examples of RICO law that became famous are surprisingly numerous. One of these RICO law examples involves the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. In 1979, the U.S. government charged Sonny Barger, and several members and associates of Hells Angels’ Oakland chapter, with a RICO violation.

Here, the government attempted to show a pattern of criminal behavior, aiming to convict Barger and other members of the club on charges related to drugs and guns. However, the hung jury ultimately acquitted Barger, claiming no proof existed on which to convict.

Art Cohen v. Donald Trump

Another example of RICO law that became famous was the case of Art Cohen v. Donald J. Trump. Here, Cohen filed a class action suit in October of 2013, accusing the future President of the United States with misrepresenting Trump University, so as to make “tens of millions of dollars.”

Plaintiff Cohen claimed to have been pressured into buying into a “Gold Elite” program of real estate wealth, to the tune of $35,000. He later discovered that the program was unaccredited and unlicensed, and offered no degrees, no credits, and no licenses.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego was all set to hear arguments in November of 2016. However, once Trump won the presidency, this case – along with two others – settled without Trump having to admit any wrongdoing.

The Catholic Church

One final famous RICO law example involves the Catholic Church’s mishandling of sex abuse claims. In some jurisdictions, individuals filed RICO lawsuits against Catholic dioceses, alleging that those in higher positions essentially acted as mob bosses, using their power to order their subordinates to do their illegal bidding. In Cleveland, a Grand Jury dismissed racketeering charges against two bishops, finding that, while they did mishandle abuse claims, what they did was not tantamount to racketeering.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Money Laundering – The process by which an individual or organization hides the origins of ill-gotten monies, typically by way of transferring the money to foreign banks or through legitimate businesses.
  • Whistleblower – An individual who alerts the authorities of a person or organization who is engaging in criminal activity.