What do Atlanta public school teachers, “police city” forest defenders, rappers Young Thug and Gunna, and former President Donald Trump have in common? All have been (or could be) indicted under Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, aka RICO.
For most, RICO laws bring to mind their original target: the Mafia. But prosecutors are increasingly using the statutes to go after street gangs, stock traders, strip club owners, mixtape DJs, varsity coaches and actresses. In Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis boasted that “there have been more prosecutions against RICO in the past 18-20 months than the city has seen in a decade.” That comes at a price, critics say: RICO trials are expensive and time-consuming, leading to a backlog of cases and overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail while defendants await trial.
What is the RICO Act and how is it used in the federal government?
In 1970, the U.S. government recognized the need for the ability to take down entire organizations for certain patterns of crime (at least two crimes committed within a decade), rather than prosecuting individuals for individual crimes. “If you sue gang members one by one, it takes a long time, and the gang regenerates itself,” explained G. Robert Blakey, a lawyer and law professor who drafted the legislation.
RICO slowly expanded to include crimes committed by banks, insurance companies, politicians and union leaders for financial gain. In 2021, the scope expanded so much that singer R. Kelly was convicted of racketeering: According to prosecutors, his criminal “enterprise” included helping him “target, groom and exploit girls, boys and young women” people.
Why has Georgia adopted its own version of RICO and how is it different?
In 1980, the Georgia state legislature worried that “criminals of all kinds were getting more sophisticated,” and the state’s version of the RICO Act was born as a precautionary measure. Volkan Topalli, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University, said that Georgia, as a “law and order state,” wants to implement “best laws” “in the context of state constitutional issues and federal constitutional issues.” Severe punishment” .
Georgia’s RICO Act ended up being broader than federal regulations. One difference: A federal case needs to demonstrate a criminal pattern for both the business and through that business. Georgia’s case, however, can target individuals — even without businesses — who have committed interlinked crimes. As criminal defense attorneys Don Samuel and Ed Garland write, “any drug runner, prostitute, gambler, or pornographer needs to commit at least two crimes for money” may all be judged.
How is RICO being used (or abused) in Atlanta?
“When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Topalli said.
In 2013, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators were indicted for racketeering. The crime in question: Conspiring to cheat on standardized test scores that won the state $400 million in school reform grants. The case became a sign of what was to come because of how far RICO’s reach could extend in Georgia, and by whom: Willis, then an assistant to the Fulton County DA, was the case’s lead prosecutor.
The APS scandal resulted in the longest criminal trial in Georgia history, spanning eight months. The trial of Young Thug – which revolves around allegations that the rapper ran his music label as a street gang – is expected to break that record. In announcing the 56 charges behind the latter last May, Willis said RICO “allows juries and the community to see the full picture of crime so they can really be educated and weigh the facts when making decisions.” She The public was also told to expect more RICO cases against “street gang organisations”. A few months later, 26 alleged members of the drug gang were indicted on a string of burglaries.
Criminal defense attorney Tom Church said RICO allows prosecutors to try “ordinary” crimes with longer statutes of limitations and harsher penalties. He recently represented a woman whose embezzlement allegations were used to create a RICO case in which she was the sole defendant: “Now when you have two or more individual crimes, you can charge it as RICO, which is Make the statute of limitations five years instead of two, with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison instead of no mandatory minimum,” Church said. “We’re now seeing prosecutors charge some of the more mundane or common felonies as RICO, things that you wouldn’t normally charge under RICO as a way to exploit or take advantage of the defendant.”
In what upcoming cases can we see RICO in action?
Earlier this year, Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Community Movement Builders, two groups protesting a police training facility that critics have dubbed “Police City,” said they believed prosecutors would prosecute activists under Georgia’s RICO statute.
Meanwhile, indictments are expected in Georgia’s criminal investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. Willis recently undertook hiring to increase the racketeering and conspiracy expertise of the DA’s office. “If she decides to press charges, I can see her doing so under RICO,” Church said.
This article appears in our June 2023 issue.