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When Congress passed an act against racketeering, they should have foreseen that one little section of the legislation created an opening for unscrupulous attorneys to form rackets of their own.
In 1970, in an effort to stem organized crime’s effect on the national economy, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). “Organized crime” was a euphemism for the Mafia, and in essence RICO was created in order to destroy the power of the various Mafia “families” and to prevent them from gaining control over legitimate business enterprises. Throughout the 1970s RICO was seldom invoked except in the crackdown on the Mafia.
Then, in the 1980s, a number of civil attorneys took notice of the far-reaching implications of section 1964c of RICO. Taking into consideration the fact that certain individuals could be injured in their business or property by reason of a RICO violation, the framers of RICO decreed that any person who could establish a civil RICO claim would automatically receive judgment in the amount of three times the actual damages and would also be awarded attorney’s fees and other costs that may have been incurred. Across the United States certain civil attorneys decided that RICO could bring them a financial windfall. Given an adroit spin, any number of civil claims, such as for fraud, breach of contract, or product defect, could be interpreted as RICO violations. In addition, when Congress passed the law, it included wire and mail fraud as criminal acts on which a RICO claim could be brought. This was frosting on the cake for greedy civil attorneys, who had little difficulty in depicting almost any criminal deed as mail or wire fraud. By the end of the decade RICO was the most commonly asserted claim in federal court.
During the 1990s the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the types of cases that could be brought under RICO in a civil context. Today civil litigants must pass many legal tests before they can expect to reap the financial rewards once available under RICO. Claims against the Mafia are seldom applied, but RICO can be brought against political protest groups, terrorist organizations, and businesses.