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Gang members face RICO charges, but what does that mean?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is a United States federal law enacted in 1970.

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. Attorney of Minnesota used the federal RICO law to indict 45 gang members and associates in the Twin Cities.

This was a huge effort that teamed up the feds, local police, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The RICO law, or Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, was first enacted in 1970. It rarely targets the Mafia anymore, instead prosecuting a lot of things from corporations to politicians in an allegedly corrupt organization.

"They have to have their ducks in a row because it generates a lot of publicity," said Jeff Grell, a lawyer turned University of Minnesota professor specializing in RICO cases since 1990.

"Nobody really understood it for 20 years and it has taken a long time for people to grasp a lot of these concepts because they're absolutely unique," said Grell. 

Nowadays, the RICO law is more commonly used in civil cases that include all sorts of enterprises and convictions can be hard to get.

"So they don't usually prosecute people who are sort of on the edge," said Grell. "They go for the black and white cases."

High-profile cases include the Hell's Angel's motorcycle gang, singer R. Kelly and the soccer world's governing body called FIFA. 

In Minnesota, book and video store owner Ferris Alexander faced RICO charges in the 90s. He was accused of various violations, including selling obscene magazines, that eventually put him out of business. 

"It's always been a good law," said Grell. "Actually, a lot of countries look at our statute as a way to address organized crime in their own countries."

Grell says one RICO case a month may be filed in Minnesota, especially amongst corporations. There is a larger burden of proof for prosecutors in criminal RICO cases. They have to prove a lengthy pattern, plus any underlying crimes, from fraud to murder. Grell calls it a "superstructure" that makes these cases more rare.

"It's rare in the criminal context to have a godfather figure so you don't see it that often," said Grell. "The only reason it makes sense to use RICO is when you have someone who's not engaged in that criminal activity, they're away from it, they don't have their hands bloody."

No ordinary civilian can bring a RICO charge - only a county attorney and attorney general. And charges are severe - up to 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. 

"With RICO you're liable regardless if you have any specific knowledge of any crime being committed," said Grell. "You're liable because you operate and manage a criminal enterprise."

Besides the federal law, most states also have a state RICO statute, including Minnesota. They tend to mirror the federal version, but also fill in gaps and make specific clarifications.

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