Civil Liberties

45 Years, 45 Days: How the RICO Law Violates Liberty


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason's March 1990 issue, L. Gordon Crovitz details the threats to liberty posed by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, otherwise known as RICO.

Intended as a weapon against organized crime, RICO has instead been turned against labor unions, abortion protesters, and investment firms. According to an American Bar Association study, more than 90 percent of the private civil cases alleging RICO violations are not brought against organized crime, but against legal businesses, labor unions, spouses, and, in one case, feuding rabbis. The law is ensnaring people whose only connection with a racket is the occasional encounter with a screaming baby….

In passing RICO, Congress sought to strengthen the hand of prosecutors against the mobsters who had confounded law enforcement. Originally, Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) had offered a 20-word provision that would have read, "It shall be unlawful for any person to be a member of a Mafia or a La Cosa Nostra Organization." Although it raised other legal problems, this proposal would have had the great virtue of aiming the law directly at its intended targets.

Instead, we have a statute that refers confusingly to "racketeering" and "predicate acts" and "enterprises." The law is so vague that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has suggested that it may be unconstitutional.