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Supreme Court Ruling Gives Prosecutors More Leverage

August 10, 2016 By Jeff King

Some might say that the last thing federal prosecutors need in their large toolbox of potential charges was more leverage in prosecuting federal cases. But following a recent Supreme Court ruling on the scope and applicability of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), that is just what has happened.

Reading just the headlines of the result in RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. European Community may not lend someone to come to the conclusion that it expands federal prosecution. A closer reading however shows that part of the court’s holding increases the availability of the RICO Act to federal prosecutors. In some parts of this case the court was almost unanimous, and in other parts split, but the large takeaways will shape federal criminal law well into the future.

What Happened in This Case

The European Union and its member states brought this civil lawsuit against the giant food and tobacco company, alleging they were part of a large money laundering scheme. According to the complaint, this large company worked with organized crime organizations to import vast quantities of cigarettes without paying taxes and customs, and thereby making those cigarettes available to the European market.

The Union based their civil complaint on the provision in the RICO Act which grants a private right of action for violating its terms. The court balked at this strategy though, because within U.S. federal law there is strong presumption that laws do not apply to conduct abroad. To avoid this presumption, the law must expressly include extraterritorial provisions, or the text of the law must unmistakably show congress expected it to apply to conduct abroad.

The RICO Act and Scope

The RICO Act was passed primarily as a tool to break up and weakening organized criminal activity. The Act itself describes dozens of different federal offenses that can be part of a RICO claim when they are committed connected to racketeering activity. Most of those offenses and provisions are exclusive to federal and state charges, and therefore not applicable to activity taken internationally. The court took this to mean that to prove a civil RICO case, the underlying conduct must be domestic.

This was not the approach taken regarding criminal activity. For example, the court noted in its opinion that because the criminal parts of RICO specifically describe activities if taken abroad fall within RICO, that criminal RICO cases extends to conduct taken abroad. This holding has led many to conclude that federal prosecutors have a new tool when they bring charges against someone for criminal activity that crosses borders into international territory. In fact, many are viewing this holding as bolstering a current high-profile case against an international soccer organization.

Understanding and Defending Your Rights

When you are facing federal charges, having the right attorney who knows and understands the law as it applies to you is key. Jeff King has that knowledge and understanding, but more importantly he has the experience your case needs and deserves. If you are facing federal charges, contact us today and let Jeff put his experience as both a prosecutor and Dallas criminal defense lawyer to work for you.

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