Under RICO, a person who has committed "at least two acts of racketeering activity" drawn from a list of 35 crimes—27 federal crimes and 8 state crimes—within a 10-year period can be charged with racketeering if such acts are related in one of four specified ways to an "enterprise". Those found guilty of racketeering can be fined up to $25,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison per racketeering count. In addition, the racketeer must forfeit all ill-gotten gains and interest in any business gained through a pattern of "racketeering activity."
When the U.S. Attorney decides to indict someone under RICO, they have the option of seeking a pre-trial restraining order or injunction to temporarily seize a defendant's assets and prevent the transfer of potentially forfeitable property, as well as require the defendant to put up a performance bond. This provision was placed in the law because the owners of Mafia-related shell corporations often absconded with the assets. An injunction or performance bond ensures that there is something to seize in the event of a guilty verdict.
In many cases, the threat of a RICO indictment can force defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges, in part because the seizure of assets would make it difficult to pay a defense attorney. Despite its harsh provisions, a RICO-related charge is considered easy to prove in court since it focuses on patterns of behavior as opposed to criminal acts.
RICO also permits a private individual "damaged in his business or property" by a "racketeer" to file a civil suit. The plaintiff must prove the existence of an "enterprise". The defendant(s) are not the enterprise; in other words, the defendant(s) and the enterprise are not one and the same. There must be one of four specified relationships between the defendant(s) and the enterprise: either the defendant(s) invested the proceeds of the pattern of racketeering activity into the enterprise (18 U.S.C. § 1962(a)); or the defendant(s) acquired or maintained an interest in, or control of, the enterprise through the pattern of racketeering activity (subsection (b)); or the defendant(s) conducted or participated in the affairs of the enterprise "through" the pattern of racketeering activity (subsection (c)); or the defendant(s) conspired to do one of the above (subsection (d)). In essence, the enterprise is either the 'prize,' 'instrument,' 'victim,' or 'perpetrator' of the racketeers. A civil RICO action can be filed in state or federal court.
Both the criminal and civil components allow the recovery of treble damages (damages in triple the amount of actual/compensatory damages).
Although its primary intent was to deal with organized crime, Blakey said that Congress never intended it to merely apply to the Mob. He once told Time, "We don't want one set of rules for people whose collars are blue or whose names end in vowels, and another set for those whose collars are white and have Ivy League diplomas."
Initially, prosecutors were skeptical of using RICO, mainly because it was unproven. The RICO Act was first used by the US Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York on September 18, 1979, in the United States v. Scotto. Scotto, who was convicted on charges of racketeering, accepting unlawful labor payments, and income tax evasion, headed the International Longshoreman's Association. During the 1980s and 1990s, federal prosecutors used the law to bring charges against several Mafia figures. The second major success was the Mafia Commission Trial, which resulted in several top leaders of New York City's Five Families getting what amounted to life sentences. By the turn of the century, RICO cases resulted in virtually all of the top leaders of the New York Mafia being sent to prison.