What (or who) is behind the rise of RICO?

A look at the Fulton DA's favorite legal weapon

What (or who) is behind the rise of RICO?


What do Atlanta Public Schools teachers, “Cop City” forest defenders, the rappers Young Thug and Gunna, and former president Donald Trump have in common? All have been—or may be—prosecuted under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, aka RICO.

For most, RICO laws bring to mind their original intended target: the mafia. But increasingly, prosecutors have used 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 boasts of having “more RICO indictments in the last 18–20 months” than the city has seen in a decade. Critics say that comes at a cost: RICO trials are expensive and time-consuming, contributing to a case backlog and, as defendants await trial, overcrowding at Fulton County’s jail.

What is the RICO Act and how is it used federally?
In 1970, the U.S. government realized it needed the ability to take down a whole organization for a pattern of crime—at least two crimes committed within a decade of each other—instead of prosecuting individuals for individual crimes. “If you prosecute gang members one by one, it takes forever, and the gang regenerates itself,” attorney and law professor G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the legislation, has explained.

RICO’s scope slowly widened to include crimes for financial gain committed by banks, insurance companies, politicians, and union leaders. By 2021 it had widened further, such that singer R. Kelly was found guilty of racketeering: According to prosecutors, his criminal “enterprise” comprised people who helped him “target, groom, and exploit girls, boys, and young women.”

Why did Georgia adopt its own version of RICO and how is it different?
In 1980, the Georgia General Assembly was concerned about the “increasing sophistication of various criminal elements,” so the state’s version of the RICO Act was born as a preventative measure. Georgia, being a “law and order state,” wanted to have “the harshest possible penalties” available “within the bounds of state constitutional issues as well as federal constitutional issues,” says Volkan Topalli, Georgia State University professor of criminal justice and criminology.

Georgia’s RICO Act ended up being even broader than the federal statute. One distinction: A federal case requires proof of both an enterprise and a pattern of crime through that enterprise. A Georgia case, however, could be made against an individual committing interrelated crimes—even without an enterprise. As criminal defense attorneys Don Samuel and Ed Garland have written, “Any drug smuggler, prostitute, gambler, or pornographer who committed at least two crimes by which he made money” could be tried.

How has RICO been used (or misused) in Atlanta?
“When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Topalli says.

In 2013, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators were indicted for racketeering. The crime in question: conspiring to cheat on standardized test scores that earned the state a $400 million grant for school reform. This case became a sign of what was to come, for how far the bounds of RICO could be stretched in Georgia, and by whom: Willis, then assistant Fulton County DA, was lead prosecutor on the case.

The APS scandal made for the longest criminal trial in Georgia’s history, at eight months. Young Thug’s trial—which revolves around allegations that the rapper ran his music label as a criminal street gang—is expected to beat that record. Last May, when announcing the 56-count indictment behind the latter, Willis said RICO “allows juries and the communities to see the complete picture of a crime, so they can truly be educated and have facts to weigh when they make a decision.” She also told the public to expect more RICO cases against “street gang organizations.” Months later, 26 alleged members of the Drug Rich Gang were indicted for a series of burglaries.

Criminal defense attorney Tom Church says RICO allows prosecutors to try “garden-variety” crimes under a longer statute of limitations and with harsher penalties. He recently represented a woman whose embezzlement charges were used to create a RICO case in which she’s the only defendant: “Now when you have two or more individual crimes, you can charge that as RICO, which makes the statute of limitations five years instead of two, and comes with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, rather than no mandatory minimum,” Church says. “We’re now seeing prosecutors charge things as RICO that are more mundane or common felonies, that you don’t normally see charged under RICO, as a way of squeezing or leveraging defendants.”

What are some upcoming cases where we could see RICO in action?
Earlier this year, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Community Movement Builders, two organizations protesting the police training facility that critics have called “Cop City,” said they believe prosecutors will charge activists under Georgia’s RICO statute.

Meanwhile, an indictment is expected to come out of Georgia’s criminal investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. Willis has recently made hires to boost the DA office’s racketeering and conspiracy expertise. “If she decides to bring charges, I can see her doing so under the RICO,” says Church.

This article appears in our June 2023 issue.