When people hear of organized crime, they automatically think of the mafia and the portrayals of organized crime in popular media, like The Godfather or The Sopranos. As crime has changed and evolved over the years, the laws which traditionally applied to the Mafia were expanded to apply many kind of criminal enterprises. In particular, law enforcement and prosecutors have treated street gangs as they used to treat the mafia.
Organized criminal groups can operate locally, nationally or even internationally, and the criminal activity can be prosecuted locally, under federal law, or even under international law.
Criminal organizations can include small operations with a handful of individuals who are involved in selling drugs. It can also include large-scale organizations that participate in a number of criminal activities as well as legal activities, often combining legal and unlawful activity to help legitimize their organization and hid the illicit activities.
The U.S. Department of Justice's definition of a “gang” includes “an association of three or more individuals whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.” The group's purpose is to engage in criminal activity, using violence or intimidation to further their criminal objectives.
Examples of criminal organizations that are active in the United States include:
Street gangs can be locally-based or national street gangs. These include gangs such as the Latin Kings; Bloods; Crips; Gangster Disciples; Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Tiny Rascals. Street gangs are often involved in the street-level trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines or other drugs. They may engage in violence, including murder, in order to maintain control of their territory.
Organized Crime Groups
Many organized criminal groups have a national or ethnic base. This is what people traditionally think of as organized crime. These include groups such as the Italian, Russian, Irish, Polish, and Jewish Mafia. These mobs operate a variety of criminal activity, well beyond street level drug trade. They also can have a significant presence in legitimate business enterprises, unions, and inside government offices.
Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
Motorcycle gangs may appear to be lawless groups, but they can involve very organized structures to engage in drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, and often involves violent crime. These include groups such as the Outlaws; Vagos; Bandidos; Hells Angels and the Mongols. Outlaw motorcycle gangs can involve a small group of local riders who occasionally engage in criminal activity, or it can involve groups with thousands of members in a number of countries across the world.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs have been around since the 1940s. After a 1947 riot involving motorcycle gang members, the American Motorcycle Association spoke out saying that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding members. The outlaw motorcycle gangs have embraced the moniker “one-percenters”, and even wear a “1%” patch as a way to show others that they do not live by society's rules.
The Outlaws, a one-percenter motorcycle club, are among of the most active motorcycle gangs in Virginia. Their highly organized chapters each have a president, vice-president, treasurer and even an enforcer. With chapters in more than 20 countries, they have an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 members. Here in the Eastern District of Virginia, dozens of Outlaw members have faced prosecution for racketeering charges, including assault, kidnapping, drug trafficking, illegal gambling and even attempted murder.
Prison gangs can operate inside prisons and continue their criminal activity and control from behind bars. An inmate with no gang affiliation can easily find themselves in the position where they are forced to ally with a prison gang while in prison, which can continue once they are released. These include groups such as the Mexican Mafia; Aryan Brotherhood; Nuestra Familia and the Black Guerilla Family.
One of the problems with trying to classify criminal groups is that there may be significant overlap. Local gangs may deal with or cooperate with international criminal organizations, drug cartels and prison gangs as a way to extend their global reach and increase power and profit. Gangs and organizations that were traditionally enemies may partner with each other, or form temporary alliances.
Street Gang and Organized Crime Activities
While criminal organizations and gangs can be involved in any variety of criminal activity, they often take advantage of opportunities where their numbers, adaptability, and the power of intimidation makes them best adapted. This can include:
- Embezzlement (18 U.S. Code § 31);
- Extortion (18 U.S. Code § 41);
- Counterfeiting (18 U.S. Code § 25);
- Loan Sharking (18 U.S. Code § 892);
- Bribery (18 U.S. Code § 201);
- Prostitution (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-346);
- Drug Trafficking (21 U.S. Code, Chapter 13);
- Weapons Trafficking (18 U.S. Code § 44);
- Racketeering (18 U.S. Code § 96);
- Smuggling (18 U.S. Code § 545);
- Human Trafficking (18 U.S. Code § 77);
- Insider Trading (15 U.S. Code § 78j);
- Murder (18 U.S. Code § 51);
- Computer Hacking (18 U.S. Code § 1030); and
- Illegal Gambling (18 U.S. Code § 1955).
Organized Crime Charges
There are a number of ways a person could end up facing federal criminal charges for organized crime. Traditionally, organized crime laws were created because it was difficult for the ringleaders behind criminal organizations to be charged with any crime. The individuals who committed the actual crimes were prosecuted with the criminal violations that were already on the books, such as grand theft, embezzlement, or attempted murder.
It is also possible to charge individuals even if they didn't directly commits the crime, through conspiracy charges. Conspiracy is a separate criminal offense which makes it a crime for two or more people to agree to commit a crime. This means that everyone involved in making the decision to commit a crime could face penalties as if they'd committed the underlying crime. When a low-level member of a gang is caught by the police, they may offer a deal if the suspect helps the police identify other higher level individuals who may have been involved in the crime.
Another way prosecutors can go after organized crime is by using the RICO Act. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a law that allows for the leaders of criminal organizations for the crimes they directed or facilitated others to commit. The RICO laws were first implemented in order to go after the Mafia, but since the 1970s, RICO laws have targeted all kinds of criminal enterprises, including outlaw motorcycle gangs, street gangs, a corrupt police department, and even the international soccer association, FIFA.
Organized Crime Defense
There are a number of state, federal and international agencies that investigate organized crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), local police departments, international law enforcement, Department of Justice, and even the IRS can be involved in criminal investigations. There are also a variety of criminal statutes and laws that can be implicated in an organized crime case, including state and federal violations.
U.S. prosecutors take organized crime violations very seriously, and because organized crime cases can involve allegations for a number of criminal offenses. Under 18 U.S. Code § 1963, the penalty for racketeering can result in life in prison. Involvement in committing murder in the aid of racketeering activity can even result in the death penalty, under 18 U.S. Code § 1959.
If you or someone you know is being investigated for their role in organized crime, it is important to speak to someone immediately who understands what they may be facing. An experienced criminal lawyer can help to make the decision of whether or not to cooperate with government investigators. Cooperation can lead to reduced penalties, but it can also lead to exposure for additional penalties. Criminal defense lawyers who have successfully defended clients facing federal organized crime charges can help you through the process and investigate all your possible defenses, and work to get your charges reduced, or dismissed entirely.