Black's Law Dictionary defines racketeering as a pattern of illegal activity such as bribery, extortion, fraud and murder, carried out as part of an enterprise that is owned or controlled by those engaged in the illegal activity. The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) was enacted in 1970 and applies only to activity involving interstate or foreign commerce. Since then, many states have adopted laws based on the federal statute. The federal and most state RICO acts provide for enforcement not only by criminal prosecution but also by civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff can sue for treble damages.
Every RICO claim must be based on a criminal violation or, as the statute states, an “act of racketeering.” “Acts of racketeering” are all serious crimes and are listed in section 1961(1) of the RICO Act. A civil plaintiff must not only prove that the defendant engaged in acts if racketeering, but must also prove that these acts constituted a “pattern” and must prove all of the other elements of a civil RICO claim. The burden of proof that must be sustained by a civil plaintiff is, however, less onerous than the burden imposed upon criminal prosecutors. A civil plaintiff need only convince a jury by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant committed the acts of racketeering; whereas, a criminal prosecutor must establish the acts of racketeering beyond the reasonable doubt of the jury. The other difference between a civil and criminal RICO claim is the resulting penalties. If a plaintiff succeeds in establishing a civil RICO claim, he or she will be awarded monetary damages, in particular three times the actual damages established at trial plus the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs. If a prosecutor establishes a criminal RICO claim, the defendant goes to jail. The greater burden of proof imposed upon a prosecutor arises from the fact that the end result of a successful criminal prosecution is the loss of the defendant’s liberty, not just his money.