The purpose of this paper is to discuss the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970. The paper will examine the RICO Act and the effect that it has had on criminal organizations in the United States, particularly the Mafia. It will consider the strengths and weaknesses, and the overall effectiveness of the RICO Act in handling organized crime as such. Special emphasis will be placed on the extent to which the RICO Act is based on the mini/maxi theory. The mini/maxi theory enables one to analyze the Mafia, and the extent to which it operates, on the basis of either best-possible or worst-possible scenarios. By extension, the paper will seek to determine whether the Act proves either of these scenarios to be true.
In 1970, the U.S. government passed the Organized Crime Control Act, of which the RICO Act is a part. The passage of this act represented an attempt on the part of the federal government to curb the racketeering activities of organized crime groups by bringing them under the realm of criminal law. The primary function of the RICO Act is to enable the confiscation of legitimate investment properties that have been acquired through the use of illicit funds. Illicit funds as such are those that have been acquired through various forms of “racketeering,” which may include threats, robbery, bribery, kidnapping, gambling, extortion, or drug dealing, among other means (Abadinsky, 1985, p. 269). By enabling the legal confiscation of such properties to occur, the federal government had in mind the purpose of halting many illegal activities that are carried out by criminal organizations such as the Mafia. In this regard, the government hoped “to curtail the profits of criminal endeavors as well as sever the connection between offenders and their bases of economic power” (Blakey, 1985, p. 127).
In some ways, the RICO Act may be regarded as more effective than standard criminal law in dealing with the problem of organized crime. It has inspired programs that attempt “to do by indirect means what the law should . . . permit to be done directly: confiscate the profits of crime” (Tremblay, 1986, p. 82). At the same time, there is great controversy over whether or not the RICO Act is actually effective in controlling organized crime activity. On the positive side, the RICO Act has been cited in a number of convictions of known members of the Mafia. For example, the RICO Act was attributed as an important factor in the 1981 sentencing of Frank Tieri for his activities as the head, or “Godfather,” of a major Mafia family (Abadinsky, 1981, pp. 42-43). The RICO Act has also been described as playing an important role in the conviction of other organized crime leaders throughout the United States since its inception. It has enabled indictments to be made against individuals who would be protected under ordinary state laws, such as three officials in the Louisiana state government who were indicted in 1980, “using RICO leverage” (Pace & Styles, 1983, p. 236).
At the same time, there are many critics who state that the RICO Act has not been thoroughly effective in bringing organized crime under control. Some feel that the wording of the Act is too broad and that it enables various loopholes to exist for crime leaders to slip through. These critics point out that despite the vast number of arrests made under the RICO Act, “only half the defendants were convicted, and of these only 20 percent were sentenced to imprisonment” (Abadinsky, 1985, p. 271). Some critics of the RICO Act point out that despite its efforts, and the efforts of many other related statutes, “organized criminal activity and criminals remain an integral part of our social, political and economic landscape” (Lupsha, 1986, p. 54). Despite these facts, it is generally held that the RICO Act is still better than normal criminal law in dealing with organized crime, and that to date, it represents one of the “best available tools” for bringing control of various law enforcement agencies over such activity (Stewart, 1985, p. 751).
The relative effectiveness of the RICO Act in curbing organized crime is one way of showing a mini/maxi argument, in that the mini viewpoint indicates that the RICO Act has not been effective, and the maxi viewpoint states that it has been effective. The Mafia itself can be analyzed under the mini-maxi theory, which shows the extent to which the organization is based on either best possible or worst possible scenarios. The fact that the RICO Act is designed to operate in a manner that is unique from common criminal law indicates that it is based on maxi, or worst possible scenario viewpoint regarding the Mafia (Fox & Kaul, 1984, p. 439).
To explain this further, the mini view of the Mafia would consider the Mafia to be another form of American business (even if illegal), whereas the maxi view notes that the Mafia is a conspiracy of sorts implanted on American soil from its roots in Italy. The mini view considers the Mafia structure to be made up of local, fragmented networks, whereas the maxi view regards the Mafia as an international militant bureaucracy with all of the collective power implied by such an organization. The mini view states that the Mafia is made up of small, local powers which are severely limited in their ability and are vulnerable to the federal government even under ordinary law; the maxi view recognizes the Mafia as being an international power beyond normal federal control and with the ability to dominate and corrupt even political governments in various parts of the world.
The mini viewpoint considers the Mafia to be involved only on relatively low-scale money exchanges, such as local gambling, with small profits. The maxi view holds that Mafia leaders and families deal with large-scale operations, involving not only gambling, but also prostitution and drugs, and that these activities enable them to attain great wealth which is often invested in legitimate properties and even in stocks and bonds. The mini perspective holds that the Mafia only operates on local levels and that there is a great deal of competition from other illegal trades; the maxi view holds that the Mafia is a monopoly of sorts, that it is able to squeeze out its competition in most of the illegal markets that it deals in, and that other illegal organizations are only able to exist if they accept a franchise from the Mafia.
The mini viewpoint believes that Mafia members are ordinary people with individual strengths and weaknesses; the maxi viewpoint considers Mafia members to be extremely clever, dedicated experts in the field of crime. The mini viewpoint holds that recruitment into the Mafia only involves pre-existing membership in the family; the maxi viewpoint states that the Mafia is always interested in accepting any efficient, competent, loyal member with the ability to carry out such crimes as murder, robbery, gambling or drug smuggling.
The mini point of view considers that the violence of the Mafia is only directed upon themselves; the maxi point of view states that, although violence is not often necessary once a reputation is established, nevertheless the Mafia is involved in extortion by which means its reputation for violence is used to intimidate outside parties. The mini viewpoint feels that the Mafia is not really as powerful as it seems, that it is growing ever weaker, that Mafia members are continually being reduced through prosecution and imprisonment, and that their identities are well-known and that it is simply a matter of time before they are all caught at some illegal activity. The maxi viewpoint is that the Mafia problem is actually growing worse with each passing year, that it is a powerful, secret organization, that very few unimportant members ever end up in prison, and that the few important figures who do get imprisoned end up running the prison, as in the case of Al Capone.
These contrasting points of view lead up to the question of public policy. In other words, there are also mini and maxi viewpoints on what is implied by the Mafia’s existence in terms of what type of public policy should be instituted to control such activity. In this regard, the mini perspective indicates that the Mafia is simply one small sector in the world of organized crime, and that no particular legal techniques need to be developed in order to track down and prosecute Mafia members. The mini view point feels that the Mafia falls into the realm of Constitutional rights, and that ordinary criminal law is all that is necessary in order to eventually clean up the situation. The maxi viewpoint, on the other hand, is that the Mafia is a uniquely powerful organization and that since it uses special techniques in its operations, the government must also develop special techniques in order to effectively wage battle on it. It is from this viewpoint that the RICO Act was developed as a means to pinpoint organized crime figures with racketeering charges, and it is for this reason that the RICO Act can be primarily viewed as being based on the maxi point of view regarding the Mafia and its influence.
However, this fact alone does not conclusively show whether or not the RICO Act proves the correctness of this a maxi point of view on organized crime. In order to arrive at a conclusion regarding this aspect, it is necessary to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the RICO Act, as well as its relative effectiveness or ineffectiveness in dealing with the situation of organized crime in America.
There are many who state that the RICO Act has been a failure in controlling the Mafia problem. These critics feel that the Act has inherent weaknesses in the fact that it so broadly defines such terms as “racketeering” and “organized crime” (Abadinsky, 1985, p. 271). This has enabled defense lawyers working for Mafia members to find various loopholes to help their clients escape prosecution even when they have been arrested and convicted.
The RICO Act has also been accused of having certain weaknesses centering around the actual methods involved in the process of confiscating properties. It is felt that various circumstances work to inhibit full seizure of such properties as described in the wording of the RICO Act. In this regard, it has been noted that the RICO Act will, because of its very definition, undergo difficulties in future cases with organized crime confiscations. As stated by Pace and Styles (1983): “Understandably, this broad statute is going to encounter future difficulties and receive some adverse court rulings” (p. 237). In addition to this, it has been noted by other critics that the RICO Act, while representative of federal efforts to deal with organized crime, is not necessarily given full support by the various state legislatures (Herbert & Tritt, 1984, p. 80).
At the same time, however, the RICO Act has been cited for having certain strengths which help to prove that the maxi perspective was the correct one to take in devising a strategy to combat organized crime. For example, the RICO Act has been highly praised for its ability to take action against the Mafia’s activities in the illegal drug trade. The RICO Act could be used by prosecutors to help bring evidence in the form of financial information into play in the conviction of such activities (Pace & Styles, 1983, p. 98). It is felt that the RICO Act gives power in the anti-drug war not only by providing incriminating financial information, but by enabling both local and federal law enforcement agencies to work together to curb the problem (Pace & Styles, 1983, p. 100). Furthermore, organized crime drug dealers may find themselves forced to cooperate with the federal government in order to avoid having property and other assets seized under the mandates of the RICO Act (Pace & Styles, p. 240).
In addition to drug trafficking, the RICO Act has been considered to be an asset in dealing with many other aspects of organized crime. It has been responsible for bringing at least some of the key Mafia figures under prosecution, and furthermore, it has withstood the test of many attempts to override it in the nation’s courts. In addition, considering the difficult nature of the government’s war against organized crime, it can be seen that the RICO Act is one of the best and most useful forms of legislation brought forth so far. Until something better comes along, the RICO Act, must be acknowledged as having more strengths than weaknesses and as providing the best possible leverage in the fight to curb organized crime that has been developed to date.
Therefore, the RICO Act can be viewed as being somewhat more maxi than mini in viewpoint in the fact that it is more effective than it is ineffective. It was determined earlier in this paper that the RICO Act was developed from a maxi point of view regarding the role, purpose and function of organized crime in American society. Since its establishment, there has been widespread controversy over whether or not the Act has been effective in curbing the Mafia. However, the RICO Act has shown itself to be more of a success than a failure, and this fact is an important determinant in showing that the maxi viewpoint on organized crime which it represents, is a correct one.