Federal prosecutors are reportedly considering charging Capitol Hill rioters under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as the RICO Act, in order to use the incident to get at “extremist” groups who may have helped organize the assault.
Reuters reports that Justice Department officials are considering employing the act, which has been used, over the last several decades, to break up organized criminal enterprises like the Mafia, and “to combat certain ongoing racketeering crimes such as murder, kidnapping, bribery and money laundering.”
“President Joe Biden’s administration has warned that domestic extremism is a growing threat following the Capitol rampage, a sharp departure from the way Trump regarded extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers,” Reuters noted.
“The RICO law was crafted to help prosecutors convict top Mafia leaders who ordered others to commit crimes. RICO cases are complex, often take years to develop, and require approval from Justice Department leadership,” the outlet said. “Prosecutors have used it against other violent groups, such as one led by Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the ‘Blind Sheikh,’ who was convicted of plotting to bomb the United Nations and George Washington Bridge in New York.”
The biggest hurdle, though, for prosecutors looking to invoke RICO, is that the act requires the defendants in question constitute a “criminal enterprise,” and that the enterprise is connected to criminal behavior,” per the Insider. Although the DOJ has indicated it believes some elements of the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol were planned in advance, and that some of those individuals it has arrested were involved in coordinating the incident both beforehand and once on the ground, it’s not yet clear they represent a “criminal enterprise.”
“Some extremists, including people associated with far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, have been charged with obstruction of a government proceeding — in this case, the January 6 joint session of Congress to count electoral votes — which is classified as a racketeering offense,” the Insider reported.
“Conspiracy” is also a way of checking the RICO Act’s boxes, and Thursday morning, the DOJ announced two members of the Proud Boys had been charged with conspiracy for, allegedly, conducting “a planning and funding effort” ahead of the January 6th rallies, according to CNN.
The Biden administration has been clear that it sees tackling so-called “domestic terrorism” as a top priority, and may see the Capitol riots as a way of investigating organizations whose members took part in the attack. That does worry some civil rights groups who foresee the expansion of domestic surveillance powers as a problem for groups from across the political spectrum.
“As well-intended as it is, we’re pretty confident that when those laws get put in place, they’re not necessarily going to be going after, you know, the Proud Boys per se,” the head of the Arab American Institute told The World. “It’s much more likely that it would be, Arab Americans, American Muslims, Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s just a pattern that we regrettably are quite familiar with.”