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It’s Time to Rescind RICO

From the moment of its passage, civil libertarians and legal scholars have warned that the federal government’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act--the so-called RICO statute--is an open invitation to prosecutorial abuse. Now, as a recent story by Times Staff Writer Scot J. Paltrow reported, many of those scholars, some of them former prosecutors, believe their anxieties have been realized. They argue that RICO’s widening application in an astonishing array of cases makes it imperative that Congress erase this law from the books.

We agree. A good law has several essential attributes: It is clear; it addresses itself to a specific and clearly defined form of illicit conduct; it prescribes a remedy or punishment proportionate to the damage done by the offense. Statutes that fail to meet these tests are enacted not in the cause of justice, but for the convenience of the state. RICO, in fact, is one of the latter. Any law whose language can be construed, as RICO’s has, to cover the conduct of Mafia loan sharks, Wall Street financiers, Chicago commodity traders and Los Angeles slumlords is vague and overly broad. Equally important, its harsh forfeiture penaltiesand lengthy prison sentences are, in most cases, disproportionately severe and cruelly coercive.

RICO originally was directed against the conspiratorial activities of so-called mob families. However, the law is so loosely worded that any two instances of illegal conduct within a 10-year period--even if relatively trivial--can, if they involve use of the mail or telephone, be prosecuted as a “pattern of racketeering activity.” Each such racketeering count is punishable by 20 years in prison and the forfeiture of the defendant’s entire interest in the “racketeering enterprise,” even if but a tiny fraction of the money derived from an illegal activity. Worse, RICO allows the government to freeze the accuseds’ assets before trial, thereby depriving them not only of their livelihood, but also of the ability to mount a vigorous defense against the charges.

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RICO affronts our system’s sense of fairness because it is a particularly telling example of the problems inherent in all conspiracy laws. The way to deal with stock manipulators is to prosecute them for violating the securities regulations; the way to deal with hoodlums is prosecute them for committing crimes, not talking about them.


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